Driving the Hyundai Creta to Aamby Valley: Great Driving Roads | Part 1
In our new series on great driving roads, we took our long-term test Hyundai Creta to Aamby Valley. Aamby Valley is nestled in the western ghats, popular for its gorgeous vistas and the ribbon of tarmac that climbs up from Lonavala to the gates of this city. From straights to dips, crests, blind turns, and altitude changes — this road has it all. And we even found a trail to go off-roading!
Indian roads trigger plenty of emotions. An encounter with a potholed stretch of tarmac triggers so much anger that we almost instinctively channel it into waxing eloquent on how awesome roads are in Europe followed by a blistering attack on anybody even remotely associated with building Indian roads. And then there are days like this that fill your heart with joy, put a smile on your face, and remind you of the simple pleasures of driving. At the end of the day your emotions all depend on where you’re heading. A boring commute can really wear you down, but a fun drive in an exciting car can plaster an ear-to-ear grin on your face. Thanks to the nature of our work, it’s the latter that we encounter more frequently. And in this new series we will be sharing our experiences with you, dear reader, starting with our very own backyard.
My steed for the day is our long term test Hyundai Creta, but before we dive into the car, here’s some background on the location. Nestled in the Western Ghats between Pune and Mumbai is the hill town of Lonavala, famed the world over for chikki – a delectable sweet made of roasted peanuts and jaggery. About 25km from the main town, up in the hills, is what was touted as independent India's first planned hill city, the one we all know as Aamby Valley City. The city was meant to be a getaway for the rich and famous from Mumbai – the runway right next to it making apparent who the residents were expected to be. But the city was embroiled in controversy – check out Bad Boy Billionaires on Netflix – though it isn’t of consequence to us today.
What we’re interested in is the gorgeous ribbon of tarmac leading up the Sahyadri mountain range — something regular readers of this magazine will recognise from many of our cover shoots. The majority of the Indian automotive press is based in Mumbai and Pune and this is our go-to road to evaluate and shoot our cars. Apart from the fact that it offers a rich variety of backdrops for our photographers and videographers to get creative with, it is also incredibly accessible. You breeze down the Mumbai-Pune expressway, get off at the Lonavala exit, turn towards Bhushi Dam at the main town (left when you’re coming from Pune, right for the Mumbai folk) and a short 10-minute drive takes you past the INS Shivaji naval station and the climb up towards Aamby Valley begins. And that’s when the emotions start flowing — a sense of trepidation that grips you before you attack any good road.
The monsoons were when I was last here. At that time of the year, the roads are slippery, the fog is dense and you can’t really push your cars. The mountains turn a luminescent green and the dense growth looks even denser. Views can be enjoyed from the Lion’s and Tiger’s points, two prominent vacationers’ attractions on the way up to Aamby Valley City. The former has no connection with the king of the jungle and is named after a local club while the latter draws its name from a peak that can be seen from this spot, which resembles a Tiger’s leap. These spots are generally crowded, noisy and not our cup of tea. We highly recommend driving past the touts that usher you into their paid parking spots and finding a vantage point somewhere down the road, which you can .
The monsoons were heavy – this portion of the western ghats gets some of the heaviest rainfall in the country – and it seems to be that roads haven’t been resurfaced this year. The repeated lockdowns pushing this well down the priority list of the local administration. Let it not deter you though, for what follows makes up for everything.
What’s unique to this road is the sheer variety it offers — straights, dips, crests, blind turns, altitude changes, and of course a rush of corners. The sharper your wheelsmanship the more enjoyable the road becomes. One can really have an adrenaline-pumping experience as this road serves as an ideal ground to exploit the limits of your car. But mind you, this is no racetrack and you have to look far ahead, gauge the road conditions and be mindful of the daredevil drivers barreling down the hillside. That doesn’t cost you fun though, as long as you know how to read the road.
As I approach the first hairpin, my heart starts beating a little faster. I pull the slick-shifting six-speeder down to second, throttle steadily held at the peak of the powerband and the Creta already has me grinning with the way it handled the corner, with so much composure and maturity. It’s a stark contrast to what Hyundais of yore used to feel like. Over the course of the last decade, the dynamic abilities of Hyundais have leapfrogged to a level where modern ones ride and handle like thoroughbred European cars. No longer does the steering feel remote and the suspension setup isn’t soft and floaty anymore. The turn-in is precise and you immediately have the confidence to push a little harder as you make progress. With the first hairpin past us, the road snakes up the mountainside and then doubles back on itself. And then it does so again. And while most first-timers on this road eagerly attack them, I suggest you hold back because the road gets back around both these corners. The Creta is an SUV and if push comes to shove, it will deal with these roads without breaking into a sweat but there’s no harm showing it a bit of mechanical sympathy, is there?
Climb higher and the trees open up. As you run along the walls of the Air Force base, watch out for the speed breaker right before the gate. Past that, you can pick up speed again but be careful, some of the decreasing-radius corners might just catch you out! Here the road surface is pretty much unblemished, so don’t bother looking for potholes. Focus on your lines, and being smooth through the bends. Not too far ahead, there’s a dip wide enough for just one car so back off in time. It’s impossible to see what’s approaching as you head into that dip, so err on the side of caution here.
Soon enough, you’ll hit a fork in the road. Left takes you to the back gate of the Aamby Valley City and is also Ed Sirish Chandran’s routine drifting ground. If you’re ever nearby and you smell burning rubber, you’d know that team evo India is right around the corner. A further left on this road will take you to some really pristine holiday properties like the Hilton Shillim.
Take the right fork though, for here the corners open up. This bunch of twisties isn’t like the tight bends that we encountered earlier. These are fast corners where you can truly indulge, push a little harder, and make the tyres hunt for every bit of available grip. The views are even more magnificent with canopies throwing shadows on the road ahead. With the sun slowly peeking over the horizon and my jaw pinned to the floor, I stop and take a moment to appreciate the beauty around. Sunrise in the backdrop, a winding road vanishing into the trees in the foreground, a bunch of shivering motoring scribes who thought winter was over and the new Creta in the bright Red Mulberry colour sum up the equation. After a few minutes of introspection and another glance at this soothing view, we get back on the road. Remember, the corners are faster now and the Creta lunges forward with verve thanks to its punchy 1.5-litre diesel engine that pumps 113.5bhp and 250Nm of torque. As I flow into the corners, the robust chassis ensures taut body control and mid-corner road imperfections are dealt with a great amount of assurance.
What’s further amplifying the experience is the Creta’s cabin. Watching the blurred canopies from the rear seat through the panoramic sunroof feels hypnotic. With temperatures soaring in the afternoon, the ventilated front seats have comforted shutterbug Rohit to an extent where he’s snoring in high decibels, and I’m compelled to drown it out by turning the volume up on the Bose stereo. Yes, this story addresses enthusiasts who care about the Thrill Of Driving, but while you’re at it, you can also enjoy the thrill of chilling with your head nestled against the cushy pillows. That’s what makes the Creta a great all-arounder, it takes care of all sorts of enthusiasts.
We return to the fork, halt for our mandatory chai and vada pav break before setting off again. We’ve driven this road enough, it was now time to explore, pointing the Creta’s nose down a narrow trail and subjecting it to some mild off-roading. Snaking through a dense forest, soothed by sounds of birds chirping and lack of civilization, filmmaker Alameen was convinced he would find wildlife here. A villager warned us that this inconspicuous trail leads to Tamhini Ghat, but is a tedious three-hour journey, something we just don’t have the time for today, so we head back to the Tarmac and the Creta emerges unscathed from all the beating it just took.
Poor roads are upsetting, but it would be to call all roads in India poor. If you know where to look, you can find the most rewarding stretches of tarmac in the unlikeliest of places. There's a very real possibility of a great road deteriorating just as you begin to enjoy it. But that is a risk you're going to have to take, if you want to be rewarded.
If you have an SUV like the Hyundai Creta that can isolate you from the unpleasant bits, you can truly get out, explore and find these great roads. But hey, we'll spare you the effort. Over the next few months, we will embark on more such adventures where we introduce you to some of our favourite driving roads — roads that you may be familiar with from our cover stories, and roads that you've never heard of (and probably never will unless we tell you about them) from behind the ’wheel of Hyundais, exploiting their new-found dynamics to the fullest.