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The road from Coimbatore to Aliyar was disposed off by the Toyota Yaris without breaking a sweat, so comfortable is the Yaris on roads like this. Nice ride quality and wide, comfy seats meant my rump and I were plenty happy. This was, dare I say it, the boring part of the drive though. Arrow straight highways speckled with roadworks, villages that bring progress down to a crawl, views that would put a recently recovered cataract patient to sleep.
Well, at least until you start approaching the Aliyar dam and check out the mountains looming over it. That’s when you get your first sense of what lies ahead. Steep rock faces on one side, a dense forest on the other and the tops shrouded in clouds — there’s a road starting at the base and snaking its way to the top somewhere in there. I can’t see it from the bottom but I was going to be chasing apexes up there very soon.
Pass through a gate to the Anamalai Tiger reserve, pretend like you’ve come here to take in the sights, get past the forest guard’s check post and… stop. This was not an easy road to drive — it climbed nearly 3000 feet over 40km and I won’t lie — I was nervous. What I was chasing was dopamine, and there is plenty of that to be had when you’ve got a winding road, a car and nobody in the passenger seat yelling at you to take it easy.
“What I was chasing was dopamine, and there is plenty of that to be had when you’ve got a winding road, a car and nobody in the passenger seat yelling at you to take it easy”
Check your mirrors. Get your seat and steering wheel exactly where you want them — maybe a little closer than you normally like on the highway, the extra leverage on the wheel will help. Make sure all your luggage is tied down, all water bottles secure and all phones inside the glove box. Clean that windscreen one more time. Wipe down your windows, as you’ll be doing a lot of looking out of them with the plentiful hairpin bends.
Belt up. Thumb the start button. Turn off traction control. Slot the gearbox stick in to D. Flick it to the right to get manual mode. Caress the paddles. Wipe the sweat off your palms one last time, and take a deep breath to steady yourself. Then floor it. The first stretch of the road hugs the base of the mountain and separates the slopes from the Aliyar dam’s reservoir. The right is a blur of greens and browns with trees whooshing past closer than you’d like, and the left has a grand vista with the lake sitting pretty.
No time to admire the views, though. This patch doesn’t have too much of a gradient and is the fastest you’re going to be going for a while, threading the car through kinks and gentle curves in the road. Then you reach the hairpin bend marked 1/40, and you’re only getting more hairpins from there.
This Toyota Yaris has a lot going for it when it comes to enthusiastic driving. Forced induction has the industry in a vice-like grip, but the Yaris soldiers on with good ol’ natural aspiration. The four-pot petrol motor is free revving and smooth. It makes 105bhp and 140Nm and I was wringing it for all it had. Unlike a turbo motor which is dead at low revs, lights up for a bit and then struggles again. The Yaris is linear and progressive. As the revs climb, you can feel more grunt being sent to the front wheels. It is a motor that will egg you on to push it to the redline. Turn the music off and you can actually savour the muted growl of the motor working hard.
Our car was specced with a CVT, and I was actually keen to see what a CVT would be like when being pushed hard. The M mode handed the reigns over to me — it has seven pre-set ratios and I could shuffle up and down them with two neatly-placed paddles behind the wheel. With this set up, I had complete control over the engine. I could tap in to all that power concentrated at the mid to high revs, hit the redline and then tap the right paddle to get into the next ratio. Up here in the mountains, it made things so easy.
I was shuffling between the first and second ratio for the most part — first through all of the forty hairpins to get the best from the motor on the exit, and second through the faster corners. It was rare but on some of the straighter patches I did hit third too. When you are driving the car and are driving it hard, you don’t want its electronic brain doing anything for you. It cannot see traffic, cannot anticipate when you need more power and when you need more engine braking. The Yaris knows this and is more than willing to let you take over. I like that.
“When you are driving the car and are driving it hard, you don’t want its electronic brain doing anything for you. It cannot see traffic, cannot anticipate when you need more power and when you need more engine braking. The Yaris knows this and is more than willing to let you take over. I like that”
The suspension is nicely done too. It’s set up for comfort, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from being chucked around a few corners. The steering is really direct and well-weighted and lends itself well to some sporty driving. What really lends you the confidence to push the Yaris harder and harder are the brakes. They are really sharp and direct, offering good feel even on these wet roads. They’ve got ABS too, so you really don’t have to worry about locking up on these damp slopes. And the best part, it has discs on all four corners, unlike its rivals that have drums at the rear.
The road up to Valparai is really special. After that first hairpin, the road climbs really fast with hairpin following hairpin in quick succession. The reservoir gets more and more distant and the road eventually takes you to the other side of the mountain. Here, the trees slowly thicken around you, and you find yourself in the thick of the Anamalai reserve. Squint enough and the road could pass off as something from the Nurburgring Nordschlife’s north loop. I do not recommend you squint while pushing the car hard though.
Sunlight is patchy and wildlife is plenty. You’ve got to watch out for monkeys and the Nilgiri Tahr that seem to enjoy wandering about on the road. Wildlife aside, you’ve also got to watch out for the state transport buses that seem to conveniently forget that they do not own the road. Soon enough, the forest clears out into tea gardens. It’s such a stark contrast — the absolutely mangled, wild foliage that you were hurtling through suddenly opens in to tame, neatly pruned waist-high tea bushes. And right in the heart of these estates that stretch on for more kilometres than I bothered counting, lies the town of Valparai.
Valparai is fairly remote. It’s up in the tallest mountains in South India, mobile network is patchy and the terrain is unforgiving. There’s this really famous saying in motorsport, ‘To finish first, you have to first finish’. I’ve adapted that to long roadtrips, and ended up with this — ‘To have a good time, you’ve got to get home in good time’. No one wants to be stuck on the road, regardless of the reason. Accidents happen, yes. So do punctures. You can get lost. Your car can break down. None of them is particularly exciting. If you want to have a good time on the road, you want things to go relatively hassle free. Plenty of eventualities are unavoidable, but something like a breakdown is close to unforgivable in this day and age. And this is where Toyota as a brand really comes through. Its cars are close to bulletproof.
“There’s this really famous saying in motorsport, ‘To finish first, you have to first finish’. I’ve adapted that to long roadtrips, and ended up with this — ‘To have a good time, you’ve got to get home in good time”
There’s a reason why fleet operators lean towards the Innova and Etios and a reason why the Fortuner is the go-to SUV for SUV enthusiasts. There’s a reason why you see so many Corollas still running on our roads. Toyota is renowned world over for its reliability and durability, and the Yaris continues this reputation. The car I was driving had done over 14,000km — remember, this was a test car that had been driven by a number of people who, quite possibly, have no mechanical sympathy. And yet, there wasn’t a rattle or a squeak from anywhere in the cabin.
The build quality is fabulous and you can tell from the quality of materials used and the finish levels. The damping to the glove compartment, the bolstering on the seats, the way the buttons feel — these tactile bits all give the car a sense of robustness. This confidence in the car’s build is only amplified on the go. The suspension does a superb job of absorbing all that the road throws at it. It keeps the cabin isolated without ever thudding and juddering uncomfortably. As an occupant, you’re never going to doubt the capability of the Yaris to take you far and then get you back home.
We came up here hunting for dopamine, and we got it by the bucketloads. A hill-climb is always a good way to bring out the more entertaining side of any car, and the road to Valparai didn’t disappoint. It showed me that the Yaris is actually good fun if you take it out of the city and go explore its limits. The fact that it can do so every weekend, without ever giving you trouble, makes it all the more appealing.