I again went to Tata Philippines, to see if they’d help out on an outreach drive. They got back to me within minutes. Sure! How many passengers on this drive did you say?

The mission: get teaching volunteers to a school in the countryside and get them there fresh and ready to show kids the fun, the wonders, the fulfilment of reading. It was another drive for the Barangay Early Literacy Program (BELP) of Adarna Group Foundation, Inc. (AGFI), this one to St. Joseph Elementary School in Macabaklay, Gapan City, Nueva Ecija. For this drive, two AGFI point persons were being joined by 13 members of UP PreP—the University of the Philippines Preschool Practitioners student organization. Add me and this brought the total loadout to sixteen, for a 110km trip each way through NLEX, a stretch of Pan-Philippine Highway, and over kilometers of rough rural roads that would take us to the outskirts of Gapan.

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Pre-production transport

For these load, distance and expected road conditions, Tata volunteered a demonstrator, a pre-production unit of their Super Ace light truck with a passenger body built by Centro and featuring its own Cirrus air-conditioning system. The Super Ace is a further development of the small hauler concept that Tata had started with the Ace micro-truck (see our story on the Ace). And, like on the smaller Ace, going into production with a locally fabricated passenger body on the Super Ace would turn this into the light truck’s biggest and heaviest variant in any of its markets to date.

Super Ace L300 Exceed
16-seat body 14-seat body
Length mm 4640 4640
Width mm 1565 1695
Height mm 2090 1965
Wheelbase mm 2380 2350
Front tread mm 1340 1440
Rear tread mm 1320 1380
Clearance mm 160 190
Curb weight kg 1550 1540
Gross vehicle weight kg 2260 2345
Nominal payload kg 730 825
Engine code Tata 475 IDI TCIC Mitsubishi 4D56
Fuel Diesel Diesel
Displacement cc 1,405 2,477
Induction intercooled turbo normal
Bore x stroke mm x mm 75.0 x 79.5 91.1 x 95
Compression ratio 21 : 1 21 : 1
Peak power hp@rpm 70@4500 69@4200
Peak torque lb-ft@rpm 99.6@2500 103.3@2500
Emission standard Euro III Euro II
Transmission type 5-speed manual 5-speed manual
Gear ratios 1st 5.070 4.330
2nd 2.400 2.355
3rd 1.410 1.509
4th 1.000 1.000
5th 0.790 0.827
Reverse 3.980 4.142
Final 4.110 4.625
Running gear
Suspension front McPherson struts Independent wishbones
rear semi-ellip.leaf spring semi-ellip.leaf spring
Brakes front ventilated discs ventilated discs
rear drums with LCRV drums

The passenger body adds about 300kg to the curb weight and 300mm to the overall length of the Super Ace’s flatbed drop-side truck variant. Weighing 1550kg dry as I reckon it and measuring 4,640mm in length, the Super Ace with passenger body is at par with the popular Mitsubishi L300 FB Exceed light truck which weighs in at 1,540kg and measures 4,640mm long with its extended rear passenger body. The Super Ace is more compact, with shoulders narrower by 130mm, and yet has a shallower front cabin that let Centro squeeze in 16 seats in the rear cabin—two more than the L300 Exceed’s 14 while still matching its overall length.

Powertrain punch

The Super Ace truck chassis was developed to go slightly up-market of its small, micro-truck predecessor, the Ace, which makes the most of a surprisingly diminutive 16hp 2-cylinder 702cc diesel engine. In comparison to the Ace’s engine, the Super Ace’s 1,405cc turbodiesel does seem large, but it’s still somewhat downsized compared to the 2.5L conventional and normally aspirated diesel mounted by the iconic Mitsubishi L300 multi-cab. This said, the intercooled turbocharger on the Tata makes it so you wouldn’t notice the difference. The 1,405cc Tata 475 IDI TCIC intercooled turbodiesel delivers peak power and torque of 70hp at 4500rpm and 100lb-ft at 2500rpm, respectively. Those numbers are a near match to the 69hp at 4200rpm and 103lb-ft at 2500rpm of the 2.5liter conventional diesel of the famous Mitsubishi L300.

Unladen, the Super Ace submits easily to the kind of short-shifting possible with a diesel’s trademark low-end torque. The micro-truck rolls easily even with your foot barely touching the gas pedal. Then, while putting moderate pressure on the accelerator, you’ll do up-shifts as the tachymeter hits 2000rpm, at 15km/h for the shift up to 2nd, 30km/h for the one to 3rd, 45km/h for 4th, and 60km/h to get you finally into 5th. This should make for good fuel consumption on ferry trips, the truck empty and en-route to its next pick-up, even while in traffic where 60km/h is the highest speed you can expect to reach on city cruise.

Heavily loaded as it was on the Gapan trip, and with the engine burdened by a big compressor working full bore to feed a dual aircon package, the Super Ace gracefully falls back on a conventional up-shift schedule with 20km/h increments. It’s still possible to roll-out without stepping on the gas—just working with extra-gentle let-off on the clutch pedal to keep the engine from stalling—but the up-shifts are best done when the tachymeter hits 2500rpm, triggering up-shifts at 20km/h for going to 2nd, 40km/h for the shift to 3rd, 60km/h for 4th, and finally 80km/h for settling into 5th.IMG20150907154311

A truck’s transmission

Having been engineered as a compact truck from the start, unlike the L300 which started out as this market’s iconic Versavan people-mover of the 1980’s, the Super Ace has a hauler’s transmission with deeper ratios on 1st (5.070:1) and 2nd (2.400:1) gear. This explains the smooth roll out even with little if any throttle, and indicates that 2nd is the workhorse gear until you approach cruise speed. On the Gapan trip, the Super Ace with heavy load, overtakes through small-town traffic saw us camping out on 2nd gear to accelerate from under to 40km/h up to 60km/h, revs peaking at 3750rpm.

Ratios start getting tall and engine revs settle down once you transition through 3rd (1.410:1) and 4th (as expected, a direct drive 1.000:1). The 5th gear is exceptionally tall (0.790:1), consequently making up for high RPMs during acceleration with a low-rev cruise. Top speed for the dropside flatbed truck variant is reported to be 125km/h. We didn’t go near this figure with the passenger body Super Ace but did achieve a 100km/h cruise on SLEX, 16 souls on board, with the engine in 5th gear and turning at 2750rpm.

The Super Ace passenger prototype, its long 2380mm wheelbase under a heavy load
The Super Ace passenger prototype, its long 2380mm wheelbase under a heavy load

Surprising handling

The Super Ace feels solid at speed, both on straight highway tarmac and, within reason, through fast curves or turns. The engine is mounted low and mid-front behind the line of the front wheels, delivering better balance nearer to the middle of the long wheelbase that acts like a dense keel. Together, long wheelbase and middle mounted engine add force to keeping the Super Ace upright. There’s body roll, of course, but not as much as you’d expect on a tall, narrow truck.

And, that long wheelbase again, this time in concert with the independent front suspension sprung on McPherson struts, made for excellent control on rough countryside roads with cracked or non-existent pavement. The exceptional road visibility and space efficiency of a cab-over design typically comes with the trade-off of a jittery driving position atop a front wheel. But on the Super Ace, that wheel top hot seat felt steadier, a good stable position on which to pilot the truck around or over road obstacles. It all really comes together: see the video of the drive through NLEX and over rough-roads at Gapan’s outskirts.

Dual-type A/C

The Super Ace is a comfortable ride made better by cool cabins in front as well as at the back. For its dual-type A/C, the pre-production rear passenger body featured a large novel duct running the full length of the cabin, with return flow taken up by the condenser in a compact housing at the front end of the duct. Cooling with more than a dozen passengers in back was sufficient, even causing condensation on the windows on numerous occasions.

IMG20150912083142Though the airconditioning was challenged by the sun’s glare at high noon on the Gapan trip, this is easily remedied by drapes or medium to dark tinting on the windows. Additionally, while the long duct did much to get some cool air up to the very end of the cabin, some load balancing can be done with the adjustable vents—making openings progressively smaller, restricting air-flow, as these get nearer to the blower. The objective, of course, is to make sure there’s sufficient pressure to push the air up to the furthest point from the blower, up to the very end of the air-duct.

Fuel economy

The 220km round trip for Gapan, though with around 80km of the distance covered on SLEX, turned out to be more of a mixed mode test case with us averaging just 40km/h while negotiating slow traffic in the many towns on the approach to Gapan. The lighter dropside variant of the Super Ace turned in a 14km/l mixed mileage score in India. In comparison, with its heavier passenger body and the additional mechanical load of the a dual A/C’s belt-driven compressor(s), the Super Ace still managed a good showing of 10km/l even with the vehicle tipping the scales at about two and a half tons with 16 people and baggage on board.IMG20150912084307-featured

I’ve no doubt that I could improve on this figure with practice, making the most of the Super Ace’s inclination to a diesel’s trademark short-shifting regimen. Dynamically increasing the engine’s displacement with rammed air, the intercooled turbocharger spools up to high boost at around 2000rpm. So, staying at or under this threshold should result in more acceptable fuel economy in crawling city traffic.

Third-world difference

IMG20150912084449The product of India’s relatively young auto-industry, the Super Ace seems to pitch third-world sensibilities to a global market. It’s a study in doing things a little differently, and making it work—making it work well enough to be adapted into the multi-cab jeepney-style people-carrier / heavy-hauler that’s popular in our market.

Here’s a multi-cab with a smaller turbodiesel, introducing the benefits of variable displacement as it were, and confidently assuming that our veteran drivers will find the right mix of throttle and stick to reap its fuel-eco benefits as they have in India. The traditional cab-over design has been improved, albeit very subtly and by way of a fortunate combination of engineering decisions.

The Super Ace is dwarfed by popular cargo and people carriers

The cockpit offers less extraneous bounce and a better weld to the driver’s back and behind. Instead of obsessing on a tighter turning radius, the light truck goes vertical to keep the truck’s frontage narrow enough to negotiate tightly packed city streets, and with a long stable wheelbase that makes those inevitable and numerous turns easier on the inner ears of driver and passengers alike. High headroom in the passenger body not only compensates for the narrower cabin but makes the people space more hospitable with upright straight-shinned seating.

IMG20150907154342And, while its dimensions make it look like a downsized commuter for the inner city, out in the countryside where multi-cabs roam aplenty is where the Super Ace really comes home. The long and cushiony wheelbase sprung on a rugged suspension makes it an easy drive on rough roads forgotten between election campaigns. The Super Ace seemed easy on the eyes for those hardy motorists we passed, unassuming and small enough to be downright sociable among tricycles that carry more people than a sedan could, and among other multi-cabs expected to ferry entire clans.

Is it good enough to carry precious cargo? After the Gapan trip which ended in smiles all around, we volunteered to drive several grade-school classes on their community visits day. What do the young experts say? Tito, after this, can you be our regular school bus?

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Super-Ace-School-Van-sizedEditor’s note, 03Nov15:  The subject of this test drive, done last September, was a pre-production version of the Super Ace “Big Boy” passenger van with dual AC.  This November, Tata Motors Philippines has started producing this and other passenger variants in commercial numbers.  See the related story, Tata Super Ace rolls out production variants with passenger bodies, for a report on their pricing.


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