Tata Nexon EV Max to Umling La: Maxed out!
Climate change is real. Last month we waded through two feet of water in, would you believe, the Thar desert as Jaisalmer reeled under the heaviest monsoon in the past two decades. In our neck of the woods, western India, the very same monsoon has yet to retreat, treating us to daily and unimaginable gridlocks courtesy flooded roads. And up in Ladakh, where in the old days we’d be gearing up for the Raid in sub-zero temperatures, winter has yet to set in. In fact Leh is so hot, and the sun so scorching, that before we set off with the Tata Nexon EV Max for the highest motorable road in the world, the Umling La pass at 19,024 feet, the entire crew troops off to the market to buy hats and sunscreen.
We have to make a change and the obvious first step is electric cars. The next step is of course, infrastructure, but that’s a problem — much like range — which is over-indexed. Leh is as remote a city as any in India yet there’s already a public fast-charging station fed by a solar electricity grid to juice up the electric buses and the fleet of EVs purchased by the district administration. On the DC fast charger the Nexon EV Max will take just 56 minutes to get to 80 per cent charge, but we are in no rush as we have two days to kill, undergoing the mandatory acclimatisation before heading up to the mountains. Our base is Fortune Resorts which has Leh’s first EV charger installed by Lion Charge, and the next two days are spent watching planes, commercial and military, land at Leh airport.
It’s also time spent getting familiar with the Nexon EV Max. Electric cars aren’t new to us but this is a challenge like nothing we’ve attempted before. Our journey will see us gradually climb from 11,500 feet in Leh to 14,764 feet in Hanle over a distance of 250km. And then we have two high-altitude passes that will take us to 19,024 feet over 75km, half of it over dirt roads. Our EV has a claimed range of 437km but we all know that climbing mountains exacts a heavy toll on range. How heavy? That’s what we are here to find out as, acclimatisation complete, we head out of Leh with 99 per cent charge and 412km of range in Eco mode. But that drops when I switch on the air-conditioner.
Air-con in Leh? Sounds nuts, and truth be told it’s not hot enough to use the ventilated seats, but the bigger problem is the exhaust fumes almost every diesel vehicle on the road is belching out. Oxygen density reduces quite dramatically the higher you go and this not only robs internal combustion engines of power but visibly increases tailpipe emissions. We’ve come to the mountains for fresh air but until we get out of Leh we keep the windows up and rely on the Max’s air purifier, and that’s where the benefits of EVs in this ecologically fragile region become even more apparent.
Then there’s the power. You didn’t think we’d drive all the way in Eco mode did you? Stick it in Sport and you not only experience the fastest car Tata Motors makes right now but the fastest car up in Leh, period. While our support ICE vehicles all have a noticeable drop in power, the Nexon EV Max continues to put out all 143 horses, getting to 100kmph in 8.9 seconds. In particular there’s 250Nm of torque on tap, right from the word go, and the Nexon climbs up the hairpins with a verve and vigour that’s not only shocking but rather intoxicating. A flex of the right ankle and heavy, lumbering vehicles are dispatched double time. And then you roll the windows down and breathe in fresh air while experiencing another sensation that’s alien to road-trippers in their cars. Pin-drop silence. Zero pollution, both of tailpipe as well as noise, for guilt-free motoring.
Leh to Hanle, for the most part, is a smooth and winding road with views so spectacular our photo and video teams rack up additional miles with strident demands to go back and forth for the cameras. And then we need the air-con again as we approach Nyoma and catch up to a massive Army convoy at exactly the same place where the road has been dug up in preparation for a fresh new surface. Overtaking trucks through clouds of dust makes us thankful for the the solid and rugged underpinnings, one of the reasons why we crowned the Nexon our Car of the Year back in 2016 — and now validated by the sales numbers, the Nexon being the best-selling SUV in the country, and of course the Nexon EV being, by far, the best-selling EV in the country. Over 30,000 customers have cumulatively logged over 450 million electric kilometres on Indian roads, and on this particular gravel road the Ziptron architecture and 190mm of ground clearance is a boon, making our drive to Hanle stress free. And that’s where we are enlightened about another form of pollution. Light pollution.
Hanle, home to the world's tenth Highest optical telescope, was recently officially designated as India’s first Dark Sky Sanctuary, an area where artificial light pollution is restricted to promote astronomy as well as the study of environmental history. Out here, cut off from the rest of the world, the winter has finally set in, dinner is served early, and when you step out you are left flabbergasted by the sight of the Milky Way stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. No need for trick photography, you see millions of stars with the naked eye. It’s a star gazers paradise! Stare at one spot for long enough and you will be treated to a shooting star. I make a quick wish, to make it up to Umling La, and rush back to the warm darkness of my room.
Next morning we wake up to a dusting of fresh snow on the mountains, and a rush to check if the overnight cold had dropped the range. We’d put the on-board charger to work to top up the batteries, but we needn’t have worried as the IP-67 rated batteries are thermally insulated and we are left with 52 per cent charge and 156km of range. The sealed batteries also result in a 300mm fording ability, giving us the confidence to take the dirt track through the insanely gorgeous Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, silently creeping past endangered species such as the wild ass, marmut and Tibetan gazelle grazing on the plateau with black necked cranes sweeping past. 30 kilometres later the track crumbles into a rough and rutted path and that kills range. Everything on an EV is built for efficiency, including the MRF tyres specially made for low rolling resistance, but on the hairpins up the Nurbule pass we’re spinning up the tyres as we fight for grip on the rough and rutted track. It’s worth it though, the views rating amongst the most mesmerising you will encounter anywhere in the world, and then we recover energy as we rapidly descend 2,500 feet to Chismule. I set the multi-mode regen to the most aggressive of the four settings, basically lift off the accelerator and the EV Max brakes itself (what is referred to as one-pedal driving) and recharge the batteries for the final 3,500 feet climb over 24km on a phenomenally smooth road laid out by the BRO, a testament to the incredible road-building skills of our nation’s defenders in one of the most inhospitable and harsh regions on earth.
We’re now heading to rarefied territory, and we fortify ourselves with sweet tea and the most amazing samosas from the solitary dhaba in Chismule. Our next cup of tea, as the signboards proudly proclaim, will be 25km away at the world’s highest tea stall. As for range anxiety, we have 121km of range left for the climb from 15,485 to 19,024 feet so there’s no stress, but as a precaution we tell the crew that there will be no back and forth for the cameras.
3,500 feet over 25km is a very steep climb and we quickly feel the effects. A couple of steps to take pictures at the signboard that proclaims we are higher than Everest Base Camp leaves us breathless and our heads throbbing violently. We cannot even begin to imagine what the BRO engineers must have gone through while building this road which serves both the local populace as well as our armed forces defending the borders in eastern Ladakh.
Unaffected by the extreme altitude though is the EV Max, accelerating just as briskly as it would at sea level, and climbing the steep hairpins effortlessly. Even the brakes work better than on an ICE car that uses vacuum boosters, and the higher you go the performance gets affected due to the lower air density. But the EV gets vaccum-less IVBAC brakes along with disc brakes on all four wheels and the latter also offers the convenience of an electronic parking brake and auto-hold.
Were it not for the strategic significance of this road, the climb up to Umling La could host one of the most epic hill climbs in the world, right up there with the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb where, incidentally, an electric race car holds the outright record. The Nexon EV Max is similarly rapid, quick without even trying, and the crew are left far behind as I creep up to the top of the pass in absolute silence, much to the surprise of the BSF guards who hadn’t heard me coming. The fact that this is the first EV to climb the highest road in the world quickly brings out the other guards and they join us as the India Book of Records adjudicator ratifies a new national record, presenting us with the achievement certificate and medal.
We have to wrap up in 15 minutes, our bodies physically cannot take the effects of extreme altitude. No wonder they have an oxygen cafe right up here, and we put it to good use while revelling in a massive challenge unlocked — the highest an electric car has gone up to on a public road, anywhere in the world. That this feat has been achieved right here in India, by a made-in-India EV, is a testament to how far we’ve come on the journey towards electrification in India; one that Tata Motors is right at the forefront of. It’s also a testament to India’s rapidly expanding infrastructure. The roads in our cities might frustrate the life out of us but the pace at which our highways are expanding; the sheer speed with which roads are being built in this hostile (and spectacular!) terrain is stunning. And given the government’s enthusiasm for electric mobility, it’s only a matter of time before you can road trip through these ecologically-fragile parts — guilt-free! — in your EV, soaking in the clear blue skies and white fluffy clouds, unsullied by the effects of pollution or climate change.