Looking for snow, sand and sea in the Hyundai i20 on the 2020 Great India Drive
The 2020 edition of the Hyundai Great India Drive took place in December and this time around we were driving the 2021 India Car of the Year, the Hyundai i20. The Great India Drive is a concept by Hyundai to capture unique stories across India, centred around the brands global vision 'Progress for Humanity'. Earlier, we have driven the Hyundai Creta, Tucson and Venue in the previous instalments of the campaign.
Five thousand kilometres. If you had told me back in April that I’d pull off a 5000km road trip before the year ended, I’d have laughed at you, picked up another bag of chips and gone back to binging whatever I was binging on Netflix. Back then, stepping out to the grocery store required more planning than a mission to the moon. And yet, I type this out having returned from doing exactly that — a 10-day drive across eight states. As the restrictions around the country eased, we started pushing the boundaries of what we could do. It started with single-day photo and video shoots in the hills around the evo India HQ in Pune. Food was packed from home since restaurants were still shut. Press cards and serious faces were flashed when cops chanced upon us. The roads were eerily empty — brilliant for our shoots, but unnerving all the same. Slowly, we began venturing further. Two-day trips. Three-day trips. Four-day trips. Just enough to bag the content we needed for a story and hustle back home. And then came the big one. The Hyundai Great India Drive.
The Great India Drive is now tradition — last year we took the Venue exploring the north-east. Unity was the message and football was the messenger. But this year was different. It was far simpler, far less complicated. It was about pushing the boundaries of what we thought possible as little as six months ago. About rediscovering the joy of a long road trip. The first two days were eventful, but unrelated to this story. They involved road blocks, a north Indian trucker fluent in Marathi, a missing yellow supercar with a flat tyre, and a boss that was hell bent on finding it. But those two days were mostly about covering ground — getting from Pune to Delhi as fast as we could, where the Hyundai i20 was waiting for me.
This all-new i20 is a familiar car. I had been using one as my runabout for a month and found it to be comfortable around town — after all, that is where hatchbacks are most at home. But the i20 is capable of much more than that. It is breaking new ground — dismantling the image of hatchbacks being budget cars that are riddled with compromises. Questioning the rationale of them being stepping stones to something better, and instead showing that they can be an end in themselves. A capable car that can do it all, one that is worth aspiring to. But can the i20 really do it all? We were about to find out. But then, there were more road blocks.
Delhi’s borders were occupied by protesting farmers and while I’m not going to justify or vilify their actions here, we had to take a few detours heading out of the city. And that is worth mentioning because said detours took us over some narrow roads where people hadn’t the faintest clue of what road discipline was. This highlighted a facet of the i20 that I was already familiar with — great visibility. You have a good view out of the front and while you can’t see the edges of the sharply raked bonnet, you certainly can place the car with confidence. Extremely useful for sticking your nose in front of the swarms of motorists / pedestrians / cattle that will attempt to squeeze into the tightest gaps they find. Indian roads are just a big game of chicken and the i20 doesn’t yield.
That whole ordeal added time and miles to our drive, but no one was complaining once we caught our first glimpse of the Himalayas. From having stared at the same four walls for the better part of the year, our myopic eyes (and minds) took time to adjust to the vistas before us. Dehradun at the base of the mountains was our first stop, followed by Chandigarh, before we headed further north. And that’s where things got really spectacular.
The Himalayan Expressway is four lanes of paradise that climbs up to Shimla. It would be supercar territory if it didn’t spring up random road works without warning, and eventually narrow down to a single carriageway. On the buttery smooth patches, I was caning it, only to be admonished by the photographer for wasting the good bits of road when he caught up with me in the support car. Meh, at least I had a good time with the i20. More than pushing it to the absolute limits of grip, I enjoyed getting into a flow — leaving it in third and using the tractability of that 1.5-litre diesel to pull it between the fast, flowing corners. The suspension dealt with mid-corner bumps and undulations really well and even the low-speed ride was good. Over bumps, ditches, road works — the i20 was unfazed.
Then we hit snow. It first appeared under the tree line as we climbed further up from Shimla — the sun unable to penetrate the thick canopy of pines. But as we climbed even higher, it got more abundant. The roads were getting more treacherous and we slowed down considerably what with black ice rearing its ugly head ever so often. Even the local bus drivers that would leave WRC drivers wide-eyed with their skill saw it prudent to drive with caution. The multi-information display told me that the ambient temperature was around zero. I wasn’t getting out of the car till we reached the desert, I told myself. And then, Rohit asked me to wipe down the car as he wanted some more photos. God help me.
We spent two days up in the mountains near Narkhanda, mostly creating great footage and content but also just reflecting on the year gone by. Travelling has been such an integral part of my life over the past few years and having it snatched away gave me withdrawal symptoms. But out here, life felt good again. Every sunrise and sunset I saw out on the road made me feel grateful to be alive. Simply making it to the end of 2020 feels like an achievement.
We then began the long journey south, heading back to Delhi first, for the flag off of the Great India Drive. With holiday season fast approaching, we had asked Hyundai if we could start our drive a few days before the official flag off to fit our calendars and they willingly obliged. It was here that our i20 got a change of stickers, and swapped out its temporary registration plate for TN-registered plates. From Delhi we took the road south towards Pune. We hung on to the main Delhi-Mumbai highway for as long as we could, but then peeled off it looking for sand. I thought the desert would be warmer than the mountains but I swear I saw 2 degrees flash on the MID early one morning as we approached Ajmer. Thankfully the car didn’t need a wipe right then.
Unlike the mountains, Delhi and everything south of it seemed to be an absolute mess when it came to mask discipline. All the more reason to keep ours on. We need to be cautious in times like these, which is why we were staying exclusively in Lemon Tree Hotels with their comprehensive room sanitation programme. Out on the road as well, we tried to eat at restaurants that had staff that took mask wearing seriously.
We found sand near Pushkar. There was a trail leading into the desert and I tried my luck with it. The i20 is a front-wheel-drive car and that limits its capability on proper off-road terrain like this but the trail’s surface seemed to be hard-packed and the tyres were gripping. We drove until the brambles on the side of the trail disappeared, and stopped because then the sand got really soft. I had lowered the pressures just to ensure I don’t get stuck at the first sign of trouble and thankfully didn’t. I’m going to hold back from saying that the i20 is a monster on off-road terrain because that isn’t what this car has been designed for, but it did reveal one thing. That the i20 will indulge your silliness. And I like that in a car.
It was only after we hit Gujarat that I could shed the three layers I was wearing and could chill in a t-shirt once again. We were now back to covering big distances in a day, and that revealed some other aspects about the i20. First, it has proper long-distance ability. The 99bhp diesel engine has long legs, with plenty of grunt. Efficiency was great — we saw over 19kmpl over the total distance we drove and on some days we saw over 20kmpl. The car stays planted, never making you nervous at speed. High speed lane changes were drama-free. The brakes could have lent more confidence in terms of the way they feel, but that would legitimately be the only complaint I have. Despite looking low slung, it never scraped on the monster speed breakers that pepper our highways. And it grabbed eyeballs. In Rajasthan, a man held up a Tempo Traveller and everyone in it for a whole ten minutes to have a conversation with me about the car. On the highway, people pointed, necks craned and you got noticed. This is a car that has people talking, that’s for sure.
The insides were also a sorted place to be. The large infotainment screen had Android Auto on at all times, shuffling between Maps and Spotify. The speakers were nice, and the seats were comfortable. It was ergonomically sound with a dead pedal even on the manual, a nice seating position and enough adjustability to get me comfortable. The passengers had no complaints whatseover. The boot swallowed enough luggage for three people on a 10-day trip. I do wish the air purifier didn’t take up one cupholder because the passenger ended up having to hold his beverage every time we got some. But that aside, the i20 was proving to be an incredibly capable car that chowed down on everything we threw at it!
Once we entered peninsular India, we aimed for the coast. I’ve grown up by the sea and immediately recognised the signs when we got close — the foliage changed, coconut trees became more abundant and the air had a certain heaviness that only the sea manages to infuse in it. We first spotted the Arabian sea at Daman, and stuck to it for as long as we could. This coastal highway runs parallel to the wider NH 48 between Mumbai and Delhi and they couldn’t be more different. The latter is dusty, truck-infested and a mighty bore to drive over. The coastal road, however, had air so clean I insisted on driving with the windows down. The main highway usually has us scything through traffic trying to make up as much time to our destination as we can. The coastal road made me turn off Maps and wish this was my destination. This is what a road trip is all about — unhurried progress across the land, taking in the sights, sounds, smells and, of course, food.
Five thousand kilometres. I think it’s fair to call this progress from where we were a few months ago. Massive progress. I doubt anybody will use rose-tinted glasses to reminisce about 2020, but we can certainly find comfort in the fact that, as a race, we pushed to survive. We pushed to bring our lives back on track. I’m glad 2020 ended so. Fresh mountain air, the sounds of the waves crashing, hours behind the wheel to great tunes — all very conducive to introspection. It has made the last few months easier to process as we head into 2021. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Just step back out and look for it.