Taking the Hyundai Tucson on a road trip to Mahabaleshwar: Great Driving Road|Part 4
In part four of the Great Driving Road series, we take the Hyundai Tucson on a road trip to Mahabaleshwar, a place famous for strawberries. With a drizzly start from the town of Wai in the plains, where the smooth curvy roads allowed us to let the Hyundai Tucson loose. Mind you, it is not like a typical hill climb with constant zig-zags and hairpin bends. This road to Mahabaleshwar has a flow and a rhythm to offer. And while at it, we also found another road worthy of including it to our Great driving Road series. Dear reader, here's the full story from the June edition of the magazine!
It is drizzlng. Lining up at the start of the climb, the light pitter-patter on the big glass roof confirms what my eyes were only half sure of moments ago. The road ahead is wet. If experience is anything to go by, the higher we climb, the wetter it will get. I can’t see the top of the hill from where I’m sitting, but I am certain it is really coming down, up there. I lived in the Sahyadris for two whole years — I have learned to recognise the signs. It always starts like this. A heavy blanket of clouds roll in from the horizon to shield the scorched earth, a few scattered droplets sound the bugle for the impending deluge, and what follows is a proper lashing of rain, thunder and lightning. I tap the left stalk and the wipers swing up and down the windshield once. Pat-pat-pat-pat. The droplets reappear within seconds. You can gauge how heavy the rain is by how quickly your vision is obscured by these droplets. Right now, it isn’t too bad but it’s bad enough to call on the wipers once again. I tap the stalk in the opposite direction. They begin their metronomic swinging in front of me.
Lining up like this at the base of a hill climb always brings to mind Climb Dance. It is a fantastic film — possibly one of the finest automotive films of all time and available on YouTube for free! But as much as I’d like to channel my inner Ari Vatanen and attack the climb, this is not the time. For starters, the sun isn’t out and what’s the point if you aren’t shielding your eyes from the glare with one hand and heroically steering with other other? And second, this isn’t Pikes Peak. This isn’t a race. This is the climb up from the town of Wai in the plains to the hill stations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. I have all the time in the world to get to the top.
The road — SH 139 — is narrow, but it is not as crowded as it usually is. To my left is a jagged rock face, darker than usual with the rain water trickling down it. To my right, a flimsy looking armco barricade and a drop that is getting steeper, the higher up we climb. This isn’t your typical road in the Western Ghats, usually peppered with hairpin bends as it zig-zags its way up the hill, with the drops alternating from right to left. This is a long climb that hugs the side of the mountain — like a giant slide that follows the contours and folds in the land.
The Hyundai Tucson I am driving is effortless. Much like it was effortless on the way from Pune to Wai — a 90km dash on NH48 that connects Mumbai to Bengaluru; an arrow straight road that is only interrupted by the short twisty section of Khambatki ghat. Normally, Khambatki is an inconvenience in the road heading south to Bengaluru — a break in the momentum that you build up before and after it. But here, it’s a landmark. Because as soon as you climb down Khambatki ghat on the other side, lies the right you hang towards for the town of Wai. The Tucson is an exceptional long distance mile-muncher and dispatched this highway run with ease. It has a solid punch from its 2.2-litre diesel and that allows you to keep up really good average speeds. It flattens out the worst Indian roads can throw at you, the seats are exceptional and it feels properly solid. When it comes to covering ground, nothing else in the Hyundai range comes close to the Tucson’s ability.
However, the climb demands the complete opposite from a car. Here dynamics, traction and composure matter. I might not be sending it, but I sure as hell am not crawling up either. And the Tucson holds its own. It allows me to commandeer it confidently up the narrow, winding road and despite its size and the fact that it sits tall on its suspension, it never feels unwieldy. One of the major changes to this facelifted Tucson was to the gearbox. Driving it back-to-back with the older car during our first drive review, I realised that the addition of two ratios allowed Hyundai to space the first couple of gears closer together and give it a taller final ratio. Not that you could tell when you just drove it in isolation. But climbing up the mountains the engine pulls its weight along confidently, while the snappy shifts from the transmission ensure a near uninterrupted delivery of torque. The all-wheel-drive system comes into play on these wet roads — a small graphic on the MID indicating when torque is sent to the rear. Useful. I do wish it had paddle shifters though.
Panchgani appears soon enough — some 13km from the start of the climb. I’ve been here before and have fond memories of the place. But most of what I know of Panchgani is second-hand information, gathered from friends who have studied in the many boarding schools here. Did you know, that the school that was used in the film Tare Zameen Par is actually Panchgani’s New Era High School? Or that Freddie Mercury studied at St Peter’s? His piano was actually on the campus till 2004, but it burned down in a fire. I have no plans of visiting any of the schools, but I would like to have some parathas at the famous Akbarally’s if it isn’t shut when we pass by.
Panchgani fades away as I drive into a dense canopy. And I realise my prediction was wrong. The rain doesn’t intensify. In fact, it stops completely, though the heavy clouds still loom overhead. The tree cover combined with the overcast skies force the automatic headlamps on. Here, between Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, the road is wider and the turns aren’t as sharp. I speed up, allowing the Tucson to flow with the road but constantly on the look out for patches of standing water. There are no threatening drops on the sides of the road here, though the thick tree trunks won’t be much kinder should you find yourself heading their way. That said, the road is smooth and the corners are well-cambered, making it easy to settle into a rhythm. Of course, I am still taking it easy. It might have stopped raining but the roads are still wet in patches. I’m aware of the lack of grip — making my braking distances longer and understeer setting in earlier. But speed isn’t the only way to have fun in a car. Flow matters. And with these roads that are normally crowded with tourists all to ourselves, we are flowing well.
On the inside of the Tucson, another major change that this facelift brought in was the position of the infotainment screen. Earlier, the screen was tucked in between the air-con vents. That has changed, with a floating screen that now sticks out of the dash. I’m a firm believer that if a car must have touchscreens, the screens must be within your line of sight. The older one forced you to take your eyes too far off the road. Not any more. It is always visible in your peripheral vision and focussing on it just takes a quick dart of the eyes.
Something else my eyes spy is an abundance of Mapro signboards in the area, and I soon realise why. The Mapro HQ — famous for its jams and fruit concentrates — is in the area. Again, it’s a great place to stop by for a pitstop, have some fresh juice, maybe even some strawberries with cream, but I think it’s too early in the morning when we are passing by. Mapro is an institution in these parts and has single-handedly contributed to making Mahabaleshwar strawberry central. I remember visiting Mahabaleshwar as a child and devouring bowl after bowl of strawberries and cream. Ice-cream, if I hadn’t annoyed mother that day.
Three kilometres away from Mahabaleshwar, I stop. Beyond this, the urban sprawl makes it impossible to enjoy driving and I am keen to stay away from people anyway. There is another nice road in these parts, I hear. It lies somewhere on the other side of Mahabaleshwar, heading towards Chiplun. Another road worthy of making it to our Great Driving Roads series? Possibly. But before I head there, I need my fill of this one – a single run won’t cut it. I want to drive back down, and make another loop of this road while I have it all to myself. Overhead, the clouds part and bathe us in a shaft of sunlight. If this isn’t a sign to go for it, I don’t know what is.