He was involved in the design and engineering of the BMW Mini, the Rolls-Royce Phantom, and the Range Rover. Now, he’s associated with a mass-market car—a first for him. Tim Leverton, Tata Motors’ president and head of its advanced and product engineering division, is excited with the recently launched Tata Zest, the first new car to roll out under his watch. He tells Fortune India how the car grew, how its manufacturing incorporates best practices from Jaguar Land Rover, and the future of electric cars. Edited excerpts:

Q: The Zest is the first brand-new Tata car in nearly four years. What will set it apart?

We’re trying to make the car valuable beyond just price. Value for money is important—but first comes value, then money. Design, drive, and connect—that’s how we define what makes the car a value proposition.

Q: How much new content does it have and who designed it?

There’s 80% new content. It was designed by our team of 200 engineers in three centres. Half of that team is under 30 and Indian.

Q: Which of Jaguar Land Rover’s (JLR) practices were adopted in developing this car?

One fundamental change has been to relate to the car in customer terms. When a customer says he wants the ride to be smooth, you have to interpret that in terms of ride frequency, wheel control, suspension, geometry, damper levels, etc. We deployed the JLR product targeting system [which helps in identifying customers and their needs] to drive product development and help prioritise our offerings. We aren’t just looking at past problems, but also preventing future ones. For the car’s geometry, we had used JLR’s virtual series prototyping system [using computer-aided design and engineering software]—it helps check for issues while building virtual prototypes of the car.

Q: What kind of bugs cropped up?

You may have defects like gaps in the body panel or irregularities on the surface. If design is a key pillar, the finish on the skin has to be of high quality. So, we evaluate the initial clay model surface, then we go through 20 or 30 iterations of fine-geometry versions. This eliminates the need to make changes at the product stage. This was never done before at Tata Motors.

Q: Were there extensive changes?

We made 18 major design changes—including the bushings and the sub-frame mounting. Three years of work went into ride quality and handling of the Zest.

Q: Did customer feedback play a role?

It’s one thing to understand how the car feels—it’s either comfy or it’s not. But no customer will tell you what the clutch feels like. We revamped a clutch pedal entirely so that a spring didn’t fall back like dead weight. Then, you can’t have a light clutch and a heavy brake, so we modulated the brakes too.

Q: You ran focus groups as well...

We call them juries. There were dozens of groups of eight to 10 people from the company; they were not involved in the project [design and engineering]. We had a special ladies’ group too.

Q: How many prototypes did you develop?

We made close to 60 physical prototypes [thanks to] the virtual process. Five or 10 years back, we would have built some 200 prototypes. As we go ahead, we’ll do even less. Sometimes you bolt some systems on ‘mules’ or donor vehicles. For our dynamics, we modified a Tata Vista, which shares architecture with the Zest; we pinned on its suspension system. When it worked, we optimised the system for the Zest.

Q: How hard was the balance between design and practical implementation?

There are tradeoffs. We came from a known architecture—the Vista—so there were some confines. Our cars are known for space, seating positions, access, and ease of egress; so we weren’t challenged from a packaging standpoint. But in light-weighting the car, we only saved 35 kg to 50 kg. That was one of the limitations of the Vista architecture.

Q: Did Ratan Tata get involved?

He was in charge of the group when we started it, so, yes, he was very much a part of it. In the last mile, the current chairman was very much a part of this.

Q: What about electric cars, say...

We have publicly shown hybrid concepts and the Manza Electric. We have developed a battery for the full electric Vista and ran it on the road in Britain in 2011. Research projects on electric cars are under way, but my view is that hybridisation has a lot to offer. The minute you get it into energy recovery in start-stop cycles you get interesting savings results, but because it may need a large battery, it becomes too expensive for most even globally. In India it seems unlikely to be viable for a long, long time.

Q: Is this your first mass-market car?

Strategically, everybody builds their cars to suit their organisations and situations, but the main point is that our capability evolved. If we reach global standards, am I prepared to stand in front of this car and attach myself to it? I would say yes. With these changes you can expect the next few new ones to be on a higher level.

Q: So the best is yet to come?

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We have a lot of talent and great people, and a lot of what we have had to do is just harvest that, so it’s an exciting place to be in. It’s not easy but the thing that drew me to Tata Motors in the first place was its ability to back decisions and get through difficult times.

Q: What happens to the 60 prototypes?

We cut them up… in the end. 

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