Exploring the Maratha empire's forts in the Kia Sonet
What was the subject you hated the most in school? For me it was history. George Santayana may have written ominously, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”, but I didn’t see how I could create an army and go conquer lands as a fifteen-yearold. We learned about ancient civilisations, about the rise and fall of dynasties, of invasions and the struggle for independence.
My fifteen-year-old brain was more interested in what scam I would need to run to be able to afford a Gallardo, while working overtime to not look like a fool during the bi-weekly sports classes in front of the girls. History was nothing but an inconvenience. But now I’m older and wiser. My brain seems to have figured out a way to get me behind the wheels of nice cars, and it has developed an appreciation for history. That bit about not looking like a fool in front of girls? It is still trying to figure that out.
During the lockdown, long-distance travel seemed to be an impossibility. And while I was forced off my jetsetting lifestyle cold turkey, I figured that I could at least chart out a few routes in the vicinity to keep me occupied once the rules eased. I dug deep into the recesses of my memories back to those history classes in school. What was Maharashtra known for? Tilak, Ambedkar and the Marathas. And the Marathas were known for their forts. These forts, or gads in the local Marathi language, were scattered all over the state and deserved more attention than the occasional trekking enthusiast. I charted out a route that would take me past four forts to the north of Pune, the city where evo India is based, that happened to be the seat of the Marathas as well. Now all I needed was a car that was up to the task…
The Kia Sonet had been in the evo India offices for some time before I managed to get my hands on it. As soon as it got here, it was whisked away for a comparison test with its rivals, that it won. Soon after, it was driven to Rajasthan on a 2000km road trip. Both stories said mighty good things about the Sonet. I was itching to get behind the wheel and figured that this route would be ideal to get to grips with the Sonet. The roads in these parts are narrow and unpredictable, and I needed a compact car with generous ground clearance. The Sonet fit the bill just fine. We started at dawn. First order of business was disposing off the 50km of highway to Karla, right before Lonavala. This meant taking the old Mumbai-Pune highway, and this highway stretch is exactly where the Sonet made its long-distance abilities apparent. A refined engine that feels relaxed even at the speed limit — this was the diesel with the VGT and automatic gearbox — it felt thoroughly at home on the highway. 50km was barely scraping at the Sonet’s highway abilities, but we had our forts to explore
As soon as you turn off the highway, the road narrows down. I drove through a few villages, their residents still absent from the streets as the sun was just about to peek over the horizon. Past the villages, the road snakes through wide-open pastures — narrow but unblemished tarmac all through. It was early enough to take a few liberties. I slot the transmission into manual and gun it. This compact SUV is quick! I wasn’t performance testing it today, but it certainly picked up pace enthusiastically. The Sonet gets a turbo-petrol engine as well but this diesel was no slouch and definitely puts a smile on your face.
Suddenly, the road started climbing aggressively up the mountain, snaking back on itself with a total of 10 hairpin bends. It remained frustratingly narrow, but that wasn’t holding me back. The Sonet was game, and indulged my need to attack this little hill climb by staying composed the whole way up. The Sonet gets drive and traction modes– the traction modes were for when we encountered offroad terrain and tunes the drivetrain and gearbox to the conditions. Out here on this climb though, the Sonet was happiest in Sport mode, bringing out the dynamic polish under the Sonet’s SUV stance.
Soon enough, we caught sight of the first fort atop a hill — Lohagad fort. And right next to it, on an adjacent hill, was the Visapur fort. Both these forts use the terrain as natural defences. The Visapur fort is much newer, is larger and sits at a slightly higher elevation and was built to provide protection to the Lohagad fort. Ironically, it did the exact opposite — the British captured the Visapur fort in the early 1800s, turned its cannons on Lohagad and drove the Marathas out of there too.
The climb down the hill on the other side wasn’t nearly as steep but it was rutted, and that’s when the Sonet’s SUV credentials shone. There was no stress about it grounding out, and it was pretty darn comfortable inside the cabin.
The Sonet’s interiors are perfectly appointed for a road trip like this too. The large infotainment screen had my navigation displayed – mobile network was iffy in the hills and I couldn’t rely on my phone throughout.
The in-built navigation in the Sonet was a saviour! Meanwhile, the ventilated seats had made themselves useful as the sun got higher in the sky and the day got ever hotter. The Bose audio system sounds really good as well and ensures I remained entertained through the day!
However, what impressed me the most about the Sonet is how comfortable it felt in this environment. Compact SUVs, at their very core, are urban vehicles and the Sonet is supremely competent at that. But even outside the city, it remains unfazed. It stays planted and confident while tackling long distances on the highway. You don’t have to think twice before heading out to explore new country roads like these. The combination of its punchy motor, solid driving dynamics and comfortable cabin make it the ideal road trip car.
We passed by two more forts in quick succession, the Tung fort atop a conical hill that mainly served as a watchtower, followed by the Tikona fort. The origins of the latter are shrouded in mystery, but it did change hands between the Marathas and Mughals more than once.
All these forts have managed to withstand the ravages of time. They’re still standing, remnants of a bygone era — but they’re windows in to that past. Each wall, turret, tower, telling a different story. Time is a funny thing. A man-made construct that the mind can perceive differently. Kia hasn’t been around for too long in India but it feels otherwise, as it already has a strong footing that it is building upon with the Sonet. I suspect that is because Kia has heeded George Santayana’s advice. Kia has done its homework, studying the history of its closest competitors in the Indian market and refusing to make the same mistakes. It has no baggage, and can write its own story, tailored to the modern Indian’s needs. It understands our insatiable appetite for SUVs and two of its first three launches are SUVs. And it is this intelligent approach to India that will allow it to stand the test of time.