There's an unmissable air of disbelief as the Punch drives past the 4x4s lined up at the base of the climb
There's an unmissable air of disbelief as the Punch drives past the 4x4s lined up at the base of the climbRohit Mane

PACKING A PUNCH – Tata Punch to Kolukkumalai trail

Does the Tata Punch pack genuine SUV credentials? Can it Punch above its weight? We head to the highest tea estate in the world, on a pure 4x4 track, to find out

Impossible. How many variations could there be to the word? There’s ‘athu pogilla’ in Malayalam. ‘Atu pokatu’ in Tamil. The great South Indian nod, a vigorous shaking of the head along all three axes accompanied by a rapid flailing of the arms. And an unmissable air of disbelief, as the Tata Punch drives past the 4x4s lined up at the base of the climb up to the highest tea garden in the world. In exasperation one of the guys drops to his knees, points animatedly to the sump of the Punch, and despite none of us understanding a word of Tamil the reference to a big fat hole in the sump in not lost on us.

Which only fortifies us for the challenge that lies ahead. Kolukkumalai, perched 7,130 feet up in the Western Ghats on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, is the highest tea estate in the world. The peaks here are tall, craggy, with steep climbs and rocky trails. Getting up here isn’t easy. You can trek up the mountain, or can hitch a ride (and throw up) in the 4x4s that jiggle, bounce and crawl their way up here. The views are spectacular but so are the drops. This isn’t a climb for the faint of heart, or queasy of stomach.

Which sounds like an invitation to us. Meet the Tata Punch, one of the smallest SUVs on sale in India, sitting below the popular compact SUV segment. And we’re going to attempt the climb up in this. They say you need a proper 4x4 for this climb. We say challenge accepted.

The views are drop-dead gorgeous, tea estates rolling into the horizon framed by the thick reserve forests
The views are drop-dead gorgeous, tea estates rolling into the horizon framed by the thick reserve forestsRohit Mane

First some reference. The past few years have seen a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of Tata Motors and today they’re the largest SUV maker in the country — the Safari, Harrier, Nexon and Punch together making for a solid SUV portfolio across segments. The Punch is the newest of the lot, the smallest of the lot, but also the most affordable of the lot – the combined effect taking the Punch to the fastest 200,000 sales milestone for an SUV in India. Now we’ve driven the Punch extensively and our first impression remains the strongest. Heading to our shoot location there was insane traffic because of some road works and while the traffic kept to the right to avoid the mess, the Punch drove right through the dug up patch. The Punch felt ready to take... erm... a couple of punches. The underpinnings felt robust, the suspension had compliance, and the ground clearance allied to the short wheelbase meant it could go where no small SUV could.

But the question remains, does it have the capabilities of grown-up SUVs? Compact SUVs deliver this impression that they’re just hatchbacks on stilts — hatchbacks with heavy lipstick and jacked up suspension. Does the Punch move away from that trend? There’s no other way of verifying it than putting it to the test.

We especially opted for the Punch with the manual transmission
We especially opted for the Punch with the manual transmissionRohit Mane


17km long but it is super tricky – rutted and rocky, with extremely tight hairpin bends, and even steeper climbs. Forget 2WD cars and SUVs, the locals know they will break down and don’t even allow them up here lest the stricken car block access to the tea gardens. Only 4x4s are allowed, and that too driven by local drivers who have the experience of driving this trail. The folk at the Kolukkumalai estate though have arranged permits for us to drive up in the Punch and the locals are keeping a very keen watch on our progress. They’re probably practising the Tamil or Malayalam for ‘I told you so’.

The climb begins at the Harrison Malayalam estate at Suryanelli and within the first ten metres I see why ‘impossible’ was the immediate first reaction. The monsoons are days away yet the showers have already begun, rendering the track wet and slippery. But that’s not insurmountable: slip the clutch, spin up the tyres and amid a hail of noise and tyre smoke the Punch will find traction and keep climbing. What’s scaring the life out of us are boulders the size of footballs. Jagged, nasty, heavy, merciless boulders, and there’s no way of avoiding them – the track is basically a boulder track of all shapes and sizes. India’s Rubicon Trail if you’d like. On a scale of severity this is a notch above the Sandakphu to Maneybhanjang ‘Land of Land Rovers’ trail that takes you to the highest peak in the Eastern Himalayas, and where only half-century-old Land Rovers ply.

Ominously many of the boulders have black marks which, on closer inspection, reveal themselves to be oil stains. The finger pointing at the sump was not without good reason. Gingerly we start climbing. We’ve specifically opted for the manual Punch to give us full control and be able to crawl at just below walking speed. Off-roading is not a race, and especially not here – it’s a trial of survival and our chances increase manifold the slower we go.

Punch's approach and departure angles are better than proper 4x4s
Punch's approach and departure angles are better than proper 4x4sRohit Mane

Unlike most off-road trails that start off easy and build in severity, the ordeal of Kolukkumalai begins at the very start. We haven’t climbed 100 metres and we have to back down the 100 metres to give way to the tea-laden tractor trolleys coming down. All the abuse the tyres have sustained in spinning up and drying up the initial boulder patch is for nothing as the tractor dumps water on the entire trail. Good god.

And so the climb begins. Normally we’d tell you how we picked a line but the track is so narrow there’s barely any space to move. On the plus side though the compact dimensions of the Punch are proving to be extremely handy. Rather than have the tallest boulders between the track and aiming for our sump we point either the left or right tyre over the scariest boulders, give it revs, and climb over them. The short 2445mm wheelbase ensures we don’t scrape the belly and then there are the overhangs.

Now manufacturers only quote the indicators of off-road ability for full-on 4x4s but Tata Motors are so confident in the Punch’s ability to go off the road they quote approach, departure and ramp-over angles – 20.3, 37.6 and 22.2 degrees respectively. And to give you a frame of reference, all three figures are better than that of the massively hyped 4x4 starring on this issue’s cover (36, 47 and 24 degrees). That’s an incredible stat and it has a real-world benefit. If you have bumpers protruding ahead of the wheels there is a very real danger of the bumper smacking the boulders you want to climb over which leads not just to cosmetic damage but the impact travels further backward to bust the radiator leading to immediate overheating and seizing of the engine. But the short overhangs of the Punch ensure the bumpers do not scrape as we climb and descend the big fat boulders, saving all the delicate and crucial ancillaries mounted behind it. The only limiting factor is the obviously road- biased tyres that have to be worked plenty hard to find traction to climb the trail – Tata Motors do not claim, nor do they suggest you drive your Punch up India’s version of the Rubicon Trail. But on the off chance that the fancy does strike you, we are here to find out if the Punch is indeed up to the task. And the most important contributing factor to the Punch making slow but steady progress up the trail is the 187mm of ground clearance. Again, as a frame of reference, that’s just 23mm less than the 4x4 on the cover of this magazine. Boulders that are guaranteed to bend lesser SUVs in half are cleared with a hair’s breadth between survival and guaranteed destruction. Over and over again we brace for that painful thadum of the Punch grounding itself over a boulder but it doesn’t come. It’s hard not to use the word amazing to describe what the Punch is doing because this trail is amazingly hard.

The Punch is the newest of the lot, the smallest of the lot, but also the most affordable of the lot – the combined effect taking the Punch to the fastest 200,000 sales milestone for an SUV in India
The Punch is the newest of the lot, the smallest of the lot, but also the most affordable of the lot – the combined effect taking the Punch to the fastest 200,000 sales milestone for an SUV in IndiaRohit Mane

We haven't even spoken about how steep the climb is. And while momentum is the answer to this problem that isn’t an option here. The trail is so rocky you can’t do more than walking pace. And then there are the steep hairpins. The 4x4s have to do three-point turns to make it up the hairpins, the Punch though makes it through, carrying some momentum through the bend and making it up in one shot. Over the tighter hairpins the inside wheel lifts and gets a fair bit of air – a sure- shot indicator of a torsionally rigid platform. And this is also one of the contributors to the 5-star Global NCAP crash test rating, making it not only the safest mini-SUV in the country but among the safest SUVs, period. Not that we intend to test it but knowing we’re driving a safe SUV on this treacherous track fills us with reassurance and a sense of confidence.

The torsional rigidity also allows Tata Motor’s ride and handling engineers to install softer dampers and while it delivers the aforementioned great ride comfort on the road out here, on the trail the dampers smooth out the shocks from the terrain letting it descend softly from the steep boulders and soften the impact to the driver. Even more important, the suspension does not rebound aggressively, bouncing the Punch off the track. The steering too, electrically-assisted, doesn’t kickback violently on hitting obstacles and that makes it relatively easier to navigate what is a frighteningly difficult climb.

We obviously have to crawl, and periodically need to find space to pull over to let the 4x4s pass. And as the day wears on the 4x4 traffic increases dramatically – it’s the weekend and 180 permits have been issued to these 4x4s carrying tourists up to the viewpoints at the top of Kolukkumalai pass. And the views are truly god’s own. Every time we pull over our photographers and videographers spend the next half hour banking shots. Everywhere we point our cameras the views are drop-dead gorgeous, tea estates rolling into the horizon framed by the thick reserve forest of the Western Ghats, and the winds bringing in thick, dark, heavy clouds.

The Punch is making slow but steady progress but things are about to change. We are now inching into the clouds, the sun disappears, the wipers come on to clear out the droplets on the windscreen, the winds bring a sharp chill that’s a marked contrast to the 40-degree heat roasting the rest of the country, and the film crew scramble for their camera covers. With the weather turning, the 4x4s at the top are heading back down and the checkpost at the top that’s monitoring our progress sends word for us to find a gap and pull over. Crazy as it might seem, this track is a public road, and the 4x4 drivers earn their living by taking tourists up to the view points, and the tea factory at the Kolukkumalai estate. We could try and muscle our way up but we will just be blocking the track which gets even narrower. And so we do the responsible thing, park up the Punch, and walk the last half-mile to the Lion rock view point and further to the Kolukkumalai tea estate to sample the highest- altitude organically grown tea in the world.

Spoiler alert. The tea isn’t great. But the views are to die for. And to think that the Punch brought us up here, on a track only 4x4s ply on, a track so enormously rutted and treacherous that... okay we’ll be honest... none of us thought the Punch would make it.

A hatchback on stilts? No chance! Tata Motors has a legacy of making blue-blood SUVs and the Punch is very much from that lineage. It might be a mini SUV but the Punch packs a proper punch.

Now what’s the opposite of impossible?

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