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There is something about the VARICOR 400-engined SUVs that really works for me. Call it power, or torque, or just the sheer effortlessness at tackling long distances, but all my memories of this engine involve long distances and terrific challenges. Last year I drove the Safari Storme with this 400Nm engine to mountains and jungles that required more than a little bravery to traverse. It was tough and memorable, and honestly, urged us to invite challenges just to laugh at them in the face. Tata Motors has installed that same, power-packed, powertrain in the Hexa now, but the package is not only more luxurious but even more practical. It’s a touring SUV with exceptional comfort. That’s where I could place the Tata Hexa in my car functionalities map.
Then Ouseph drove the Hexa to Kaza in the Spiti valley from Pune, crossed rivers and crawled over rocks big enough to cripple many mighty SUVs. It has also taken to slush like a fish to water, and all it has is a shift-on-the-fly ‘Rough road’ mode. The Hexa then is tougher than the cushy soft roader I was assuming it to be. Is it that gentle giant – tough on the outside, soft on the inside? It’s the kind of myth busting that’s needed for a versatile car like the Hexa to reveal its true potential and where else to bust a car’s ‘it can’t do it’ scepticism than the desert. So we drove west.
I was on my way to Bikaner from Delhi with Rohit and Alameen for our next adventure when I noticed a few cuts and bruises on the bumper. Battle scars from the hard life the Hexa has already lived. When you drive your car in the city, these scars are embarrassing, but when it has gone to Kaza, they are stars on your chest. How much more abuse could it take though? The desert has a way of humbling the toughest of vehicles and bruising the mightiest of egos so we needed to get our tracks right for a day in the dunes during our roadtrip.
Everybody knows about Jaisamler but when you’ve been there and done that you should follow in the tyre tracks of the rally raid boys and come to Bikaner. The Desert Storm rally is held in these parts and these desert trails are one of the hidden gems of the country. And the go-to guy for Dakar-rivalling desert trails is Raj Kapoor of Northern Motorsport who knows the areas around Bikaner like the back of his hand. And so armed with GPS tracks from the last running of the ‘Storm and with one of the event’s key organisers, Arvind Balan for company, we headed into the desert.
We drove to a location about 15 minutes away from the city, and so close to civilisation, we were already entering a desert trail. You could see shrubs and sand and a hard left and fast right later, he led us into the beginning of a set of dunes. Ensure you have enough momentum and any SUV will drive onto desert trails without much protest but all of a sudden this trail narrows as we are faced with a dune. It requires me to engage AWD, or Rough Road mode in the Hexa’s case, and it’s a good thing that it shifts on the fly then. Comfort and Dynamic modes in the Hexa keep you in 4×2 mode till it senses a loss in traction. When it detects slip the on-board computer splits available torque to all four wheels thereby giving you AWD traction. But in the desert it is best to leave it in Rough Road mode as you want to be proactive, not reactive. When you are driving in the desert, the speeds you do are much lower, but your reaction time needs to be very quick and a split second decision stands between maintaining momentum and getting stuck.
Rough Road mode also dials in a different engine map to deliver more low-end torque and that’s the setting you need to stay on while driving in the desert. The 400Nm of torque from the mighty VARICOR engine takes care of the rest. A few minutes after climbing that first dune, I was pushing the Hexa as hard as I remember driving the Safari in the dunes a year ago (don’t miss that video on our YouTube channel). Don’t get carried away after all the heroics though. The Hexa is great through the small and medium sized dunes but it’s not built for towering sand monuments and you should respect that. The SUVs that climb them have low-ratio transfer cases and have off-roading as their core competence. The Hexa can do everything and that’s its USP.
But after bashing some dunes, I was more than psyched for some trail driving. There was absolutely no doubt about the Hexa tackling a trail after what it just did and oh boy was I beginning to have fun. The big seven-seater is quite sporty here with its strong engine and beautifully sorted damping making it easy to handle the desert trails that lie ahead. The steering is light and quick and once you get used to being heavy with the right foot, driving in the desert is more fun than you think. Kicking up sand for some dramatic shots, getting a four-wheel drift, using the vehicle’s weight transfer to your advantage and conserving the SUV by being sharply aware of your obstacles – desert driving is a must for enthusiasts. You instinctively learn to countersteer, modulate throttle better, use the driven rear wheels to get the tail out to make sharper turns and become a better driver in the process.
Driving trails can be addictive too. When you venture out into the desert, the beauty in all that harshness is mesmerising. You will want to go deeper into the desert, explore more of the nothingness and push your car more than you thought you would (or could). So always go in with a full tank of gas, remember to reduce tyre pressures by a few PSI for trail driving and to about half for dune bashing, carry food and water supplies, go in with at least two SUVs (for backup) and make sure you’ve got your off-roading pack in the boot.
You didn’t really think we were going to just drive in to the desert did you? You need a beefy sump guard, an air compressor, a set of sand ladders (two minimum, but preferably four), a shovel, even an air jack if you are all by yourself, and lastly, if you plan on a barbeque night under the stars, a tent too. That and an extra tyre to go with your spare and you are all set to venture out. Driving in the desert is a lot of fun if you come prepared.
Driving to the Thar desert in a car that powers all four wheels usually means engaging in desert sports but there’s more to Rajasthan than that. You get the Aravalli mountain ranges to the west and south of the desert and connecting the farthest parts of Rajasthan to the border with Pakistan are arrow straight stretches of road paved smoother than a baby’s butt. It’s ideal for touring in something so comfortable. Highways in Rajasthan really are the best in the country. Not just the national highways but the state highways too, and once the Aravalli ranges are behind you, you can indulge in a lot of high-speed touring. Mount Abu is the highest mountain pass in the state, situated in the southern ranges of the Aravallis but honestly, except for the high temperatures in the state, driving on road isn’t much of a challenge. It’s when you get off the road that the adventure begins.
There’s much to see around town after a day of off-roading. Drive in to the city and you will realise why Bikaner is like an oasis in the desert. The city isn’t as starved of water as other major towns of Rajasthan, and that’s why you will notice grand palaces built on the riches of the state. Junagarh or the old fort is right in the middle of town and the new city is built around it. The Laxmi Nivas palace which is now a palace hotel, happened to be the Maharaja’s house in the beginning of the last century. Just 30km away from the city is the famous rat temple we’ve seen and read so much about. Bikaner is also the last major city before you venture in to the border towns and villages, just like Jaisalmer is further down south-west of Bikaner.
As for the Hexa, we breezed past a 1000km roadtrip with a day full of desert driving in between and it didn’t even break into a sweat. For all the equipment and luxuries it packs, the Hexa enjoys rolling up its sleeves and I love that in an SUV. Particularly when there’s that VARICOR 400 motor to punch through any terrain.