Maruti Suzuki Grand Vitara to 16,580-feet Shinku La Pass
Manali, Himachal Pradesh. Mountain town, hippy haven and a gateway to bigger adventures in the Himalayas. Also a mandatory pit stop for us at evo India before we head to higher altitudes. Here we tuck into steaming hot momos, stock up on supplies, double check our snow chains and triple check the weather forecasts — 17 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine in Manali at the moment. Paradise, considering we’d just come from the searing heat of the plains. However, the next few days looked dicey. Chances of precipitation in the Lahaul region, where we were heading, were high. At these altitudes precipitation doesn’t mean rain. It means snow. And snow means trouble. A few BRO men had lost their lives in an avalanche on the very route we were driving just a few weeks earlier. We had a small window to finish what we had travelled so far for — a hardcore test of the Maruti Suzuki Grand Vitara’s ability as a proper AWD SUV, on the climb up to Shinku La pass. Tick tock, tick tock.
Ah, the Maruti Suzuki Grand Vitara. Finally, a proper SUV to take on the crossovers that have populated our streets. Over the last few years, the definition of an SUV has been perverted. Pretenders have joined the fray, rubbing the SUV name in the wrong kind of mud. The Grand Vitara is Maruti Suzuki’s attempt to fight back — in addition to featuring traditional SUV-like styling elements, it gets very real capability. With an ALLGRIP badge on the boot indicating an AWD system under the skin, when the going gets tough, it keeps on going. Maruti Suzuki is no stranger to 4x4s. The Gypsy is nothing short of legendary and the older Grand Vitara cemented the capability of ALLGRIP. Shinku La should be easy pickings then, no?
No. Shinku La sits at over 16,500 feet. Steep climbs. Thin air. Low visibility. Violent winds. Frostbite-inducing temperatures. Drops that make your stomach churn. The Border Roads Organisation has paved the way to the top but that makes little difference when the entire mountain is covered in fresh snow. Conditions like these are harsh on both man and machine. Limits are pushed and occasionally found. This was no walk in the park. Which is why we’ve called in reinforcements — a friend of both evo India and the Grand Vitara. Suresh Rana is an 11-time Raid-de-Himalaya winner and nothing short of a legend in these parts. He has extensive experience rallying Maruti Suzukis — first the Gypsy, then the OG Grand Vitara — and knows the mountains like few others do. I’ve seen him do what he does best in the flesh. Screaming through the mountains in his rally-prepped Grand Vitara, his incredible wheelsmanship on full display as he gets these SUVs to dance to his will — his skills only eclipsed by the arena he performs them in. It’s his first time driving this new Grand Vitara somewhere extreme and going by the grin he’s had on his face, he was just as kicked as we were.
First up, the Atal tunnel. A marvel of engineering — an 8.8km long tunnel that bores through the mountains, connecting Manali to the Lahaul region. Until four years ago, the only way across was the fearsome Rohtang pass — 13,050 feet high, it remained snowed in through the winters and teeming with manic tourists in the summer. Getting to Lahaul was impossible in the former and the endless traffic jams made it painful in the latter.
Crossing the tunnel? As easy as lifting a finger, quite literally. I set cruise control to 60kmph and kicked back, only to emerge in another world. Problem is, the ease at which you get across to Lahaul lulls you into a false sense of complacency. Never a good thing in the mountains.
Lahaul is spectacular. A smattering of blues, greens, browns and whites, interrupted only by the near-perfect tarmac of the Manali-Leh highway. At this time of year, white dominates the landscape but I’m hardly complaining. It looks more beautiful this way. I just hope it lasts. You see, before the tunnel, most residents of these parts used to descend to Manali or lower altitudes where they spent the winters. However, now they have the option of living there all year round. The increased connectivity is a boon — it makes life easier. But there’s a dark side to it too. The number of hotels and guest houses has already exploded. Expect more tourism in the coming years. And you know what more tourists can do to a place. Just look at Manali…
On the highway that scythes through Lahaul though, the Grand Vitara comes into its own and showcases what a good SUV it is to drive. “Comfort is top notch,” says Rana and I’m going to have to agree. Ride quality is a highlight. Body control is good over the many crests and dips that pepper the highway, and the occasional broken patch is disposed of effortlessly. Add to that genuine dynamic ability and you have an SUV that is ideal for a road like the Manali-Leh highway. We were driving at little over 10,000 feet at this point and at these altitudes, the tops of the mountains were white but the snows on and around the roads had melted. You could drive the Grand Vitara hard and revel in the brilliance of the road and the car’s ability. The creature comforts on offer make this a great road trip car as well — the cabin is well laid out, there’s a brilliant infotainment screen which is easy to use, the cluster is easy to read, the seats are comfortable, there is enough space at the back, and the boot has swallowed up all our gear. I’ve also got a massive panoramic sunroof to let the views in. It checks all the right boxes.
Then there’s the engine. It’s a 1.5-litre nat-asp mild-hybrid engine — familiar from the other Maruti Suzukis it is present in. Power stands at 101bhp and torque at 136Nm, which are adequate to make progress up the mountain. Refinement and efficiency remain its highlights, as does the slick shift of the manual transmission. Mind you, the AWD variant is only available with a manual which is something I don’t mind. The sort of driving we had coming our way required us to be in complete control. Even the split second hesitation of an auto ’box could get us stuck.
We drove past Keylong, hung a left off the Manali-Leh highway at Darcha and pointed our way towards Shinku La. This route, the Shinku La pass, is significant as it connects the remote Zanskar region in Ladakh to Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh, and consequently the rest of the country. However, much like the Atal tunnel has rendered Rohtang pass redundant, this centuries-old trail will soon share the same fate courtesy the tunnel that is being built under it. These tunnels are really something. The climes where they are being built are so extreme, so desolate, but the BRO soldiers on. They truly are an example of man’s refusal to submit to the rules of nature. That day though, we were obeying all rules. Up the pass we went. The scenery got progressively whiter as we approached the start of the climb, the snow eating into more and more of the landscape until only a black ribbon of tarmac was left defiantly cutting through it. That too was about to change.
You gain altitude very quickly. The start of the climb is peppered with hairpin bend after hairpin bend, really asking the most from the engine. At these altitudes, oxygen is low and the internal combustion engine starts losing power. It wasn’t suffering alone though — even I was getting out of breath giving my bytes to the camera. We were so focussed on the climb and making progress that we didn’t notice the clouds rolling in until a few specks of what seemed like rain appeared on the windscreen. But it doesn’t rain here, remember? It was snow, arriving much earlier than we had anticipated.
We had to take a call. Push forward and go for glory at the risk of getting stuck, or turn around and live to fight another day? Not an easy decision. On one hand, playing chicken with the mountains was asking for trouble. On the other hand, we had come so far. Some back of the napkin calculations led us to conclude we were a mere 15km from the top. The forecast had predicted a whole week of snow once it started — coming back the next day was not an option. It was now or never.
We doubled down. Both Rana and I were apprehensive at first. We were in hardcore 4x4 territory now, where the big guns are called upon. The Grand Vitara doesn’t have a low range transfer case, but has some electronic trickery to make up for it. Snow mode primes the AWD and the ESP to ensure that slip is minimised as the car travels true to the inputs I’m giving it. It also has a lock function that sends equal torque to the front and rear axles, preventing the wheels with no traction from spinning freely. We also had the mountain man himself. I handed Rana the keys and let him take over the wheel. He had the best chance of seeing us to the top.
Ten minutes in, we were grinning again. The Grand Vitara simply refused to stop! I did quiz him on what he was doing different from driving on solid ground. “Keep turning the wheels left to right to maximise grip, don’t lose momentum, and be super careful on the brakes while descending,” he said. No one better to give you a three sentence crash course on snow driving.
The last three kilometres were the trickiest — 20-foot high walls of snow formed a corridor of sorts. I couldn’t tell where the snow ended and the sky began, what with the clouds hanging so low. The road had deteriorated to an icy trail beneath us. We stayed in first gear, kept the engine on the boil and refused to slow down for anything — slowing down too much on the broken patches would risk breaking momentum and get us stuck. A good suspension is critical here. Too stiff and the wheels would skip over bumps and lose traction. Too soft, and you risk the car bottoming out and breaking a suspension arm or the sump. Right foot planted, we steamrolled over them and the suspension acted as it should — dropping and raising the wheels to the tune of the trail, ensuring the tyres stayed in contact and delivered maximum traction while keeping body movement well in check. No drama. No struggling. A sign of real capability.
With the worst behind us, we stayed our course and cruised to the top of Shinku La. The snow was properly coming down now but we had made it — 16,580 feet! The top of the pass was desolate. Usually, you have a board marking the top of these high altitude passes erected by the BRO, replete with stickers of adventurers who have been here before. In some way, that one board makes you feel less alone. It makes you feel like a part of a community of fellow adrenaline junkies. Not today, though. The maddening wind that blew here over the winter had ripped the signboard clean off the ground. We only had a few Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind to greet us. It was surreal.
As for the Grand Vitara, what a machine. Looking at the spec sheet, it might seem like Maruti has played it safe but underneath the skin is a properly capable machine. Nothing in the Grand Vitara’s vicinity could have rolled up its sleeves and made the climb that we just did. Even Rana, a hard man to please, was impressed with its capabilities. Underneath all the rosy stuff, the comfortable cabin, the space, the refinement, is an SUV that can do SUV things. The Grand Vitara is no pretender.