Indian odyssey

Team OD Updated: August 25, 2011, 11:24 PM IST

This story seems like one for our anniversary issue, where such epic drives and road trip extravaganzas belong. For the first time in over a year the entire editorial team was involved in an extraordinary drive encompassing the Golden Quadrilateral. We considered the exotic cars and then decided to drive the Toyota Etios on instead. Toyota claims this car has been conceptualised, designed and built for India and this would be the claim's ultimate test.

With the Toyota a few things are a given like reliability and quality but can Toyota's first car in the volume segment cut the Indian mustard? Well, the Etios has shone through our road tests and comparos, impressing us so much that it even won 2011 CNBC-TV18 OVERDRIVE Car of the Year. But nothing comes close to a long and gruelling real world test so roll on to the G-Quad. In context of a long haul drive in summer, the Etios has an outstanding feature. It can hold and cool five one-litre bottles of water or six half-litre bottles of your favourite soft drink. Not even the Prado chiller holds as much. And nothing like having enough chilled fluids while driving across India.

Since Toyota intended to build a car for India from the ground up, it opted for the bigger sedan version now that there is a fast growing number of Indians with disposable incomes who splurge on automobiles. The Etios is not a hatchback with a boot strapped on but a car designed to have a three-box layout from the start. Though there are hatchbacks that cost half of what an Etios does, it is sold out and commands waiting periods of over 4-5 months. And the company has announced an annual production of 70,000 units, no less. The Liva, which is a hatchback version of the Etios is due for launch in India and is aimed at those who do not want a boot in their car nor want to shell out extra dough for a larger car but the Etios is clearly aimed at the growing middle class family.

Like the Etios, the Golden Quadrilateral symbolises India's prosperity. The then BJP government deserves kudos for laying the foundation stone for this mega highway connecting the four metros. Connectivity is crucial to development and nothing comes close to the role this highway has played. The G-Quad has significantly cut travel times especially for the trucks and buses and has also aided in development of the surrounding areas. I've travelled on its highways a number of times over the years and there is noticeable development wherever the highways run.

The OVERDRIVE Etios Yatra involved an over 6500km journey. We drove for 12 days (in four legs) starting from the Toyota factory at Bengaluru, and onwards to Mumbai on the NH8. We then proceeded to Delhi via Gujarat and Rajasthan. Heading east, we then drove through the heart of India all the way to Kolkata before driving south and reaching Chennai and returning to Bengaluru. The brief was to put the Etios through the ultimate test and verify its suitability for India. We divided the drive into four legs with two members of the team driving each leg.

The first leg began at Bengaluru where Sirish and I were flagged off at 12:30pm from the Toyota Kirloskar Motors factory by TKM bosses H Nakagawa (MD), Sandeep Singh (DMD marketing) and Shigeru Tomonaga (DMD production). Our plan was to be on the road by 11am IST but hey, IST also stands for Indian Stretchable Time. I rode shotgun armed with a smart phone and a wireless keyboard for documenting the trip on our blog. We got on to the crowded highway next to the industrial area in Bidadi where the TKM factory is located and hung a left for 'NICE' road (literally) and headed north.

Being the gadget freaks that we all at OVERDRIVE are, each one of us carries an assortment of chargers, cables and storage devices for in-car entertainment. At any given point of time, Bert, Shumi and I will have at least one aux cable, a cigarette lighter USB charger, iPhone/iPod cables, a USB memory stick, a radio transmitter or when all else fails, a CD. There is nothing worse than being stuck in a car without music when you have over a 1000km to go. Progressive trance does it for me and Sirish likes his usual tracks which were sung by men who are pushing daisies. However, both Sirish and I forgot our gear thinking the other would get it. So there we were, in front of us a music system with aux and USB input and CD player and no music in sight.

We made good progress from Bengaluru all the way to Davangere where the highway is still under construction. We were averaging around 60kmph despite stopping every half an hour for video shooting. The Etios is a comfortable car to drive and the excellent highway added to the driving comfort. When I took over, it was my first time driving an Etios. I was expecting good lowdown torque but not this good. The driveability is fantastic. The pulling power from anything above 1700rpm is remarkable. I cruised comfortably in fifth and barely downshifted at all.

Having stocked up for the journey, we barely stopped for food. We crossed Karnataka fortified by a diet of chilled cola, cookies and chips. However, dinner is a more religious affair and we prayed at a highway eatery just outside Belgaum. The Etios was returning 15.2kmpl and considering our spirited driving, that is pretty good.

The original plan was to halt in Belgaum but we decided to push on to Pune. It was around 8pm in Belgaum and we hoped to make it to Mumbai by 2am. There is nothing like sleeping in your own bed after all. We weren't tired and that's a testament to the Etios' excellent ride quality, brilliant stability and sophisticated road manners that enabled high speeds in safety and comfort.

Once you enter Maharashtra, you can immediately see a change. The G-Quad is much better in Karnataka and I can't fathom why. Somehow the surface and the planning feel much better in Karnataka. The other horrible thing about G-Quad in Maharashtra are toll booths. As soon as you begin enjoying the drive there comes a toll naka to spoil it all with its long lines thanks to inefficient operators. This remained the routine all the way till the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

In spite of a drop in our average speed we still managed to reach Pune by 3am and then after dropping Sirish home, we headed to Mumbai and reached at 5am. So far, the drive was enjoyable and fuss free but I wasn't so keen on the next leg, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Because of the ports in Gujarat there is a lot of commercial traffic and that means I would have to pretend to sleep while I let Bert do all the driving and swearing.

We began leg two from Bert's apartment and as per plan, I dozed off and Bert took the wheel. The traffic at 7am on a Sunday was appalling. We were welcomed by extra long trailers and outstation buses occupying all lanes and refusing to move no matter how hard you honked. The worst part is when a truck travelling at 40kmph is trying to overtake a truck travelling at 39kmph.

I gave up on sleeping because it just seemed impossible with all the lane cutting and sudden braking happening all around us and then there were breaks every 30 minutes for shooting. We finally stopped at a McDonalds for breakfast and this was where we switched. I took the wheel and it was Bert's turn to try and nap. There were many impromptu speed-breakers and potholes and the occasional service road detour because of the construction but the Etios remained unruffled. The ride while compliant isn't soft and so it doesn't wallow or lose composure. Turns out the India set-up is a brilliant compromise between good handling and ride.

We reached Vapi, roughly around 170km from Mumbai, after two and a half hours. Once further into Gujarat, the roads improved and beyond Baroda the traffic eased allowing the Etios to stretch its legs. The road was excellent, three-lane in most places which meant there was ample scope to maintain an average speed of around 70-80kmph. However, we got caught in an enormous tailback in Surat where the entry to the city is via this narrow bridge (the second one is, eons later, still under construction) which jams up every time two trucks have to cross. We did find a way across the jam with a little help from an enthusiastic traffic cop.

We stopped on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on the National Expressway 1 for more photography and headed into Rajasthan. Once again we skipped the city we were to halt at, Udaipur in this case and headed further north to Chittorgarh. The whole place was like a Canadian town from a vampire movie and we were lost. But Bert the fixer checked us in at the Pratap Palace where we were greeted by old jeeps and bikes.

We couldn't leave on time because we were busy shooting and ogling the owner Rishi's collection of Willy's jeeps. Having left Chittor we backtracked assuming we were supposed to be heading in a direction which unfortunately was wrong. We ended up driving to Kota instead of Kishangarh. Once we landed in Kota we realised there was no dual carriageway any longer and getting to Jaipur was an absolute pain. The roads were bad, bumpy and scarred.

We returned to the road to Jaipur, nearly an hour behind. Eventually we did manage to find our way to the highway leading to Delhi. Now we were four hours behind schedule, hadn't eaten anything other than glucose biscuits because we just couldn't find anything on the Kota-Jaipur road.

Before Jaipur arrived, we stopped to gorged on parathas and curd. That meal nicely got the energy back into all of us and we were all set for the last 250km to Delhi. We had to get to Delhi in time for Bert to catch his flight back and it was a white-knuckle drive deserving a separate five-page story. Around 130km outside Delhi we were caught in an immense traffic jam which the Delhi-Jaipur stretch is notorious for. Even though it was my first time here, Bert recalled going through such traffic every time he had been here over the last 12 years. With a plane to catch in the next two hours, he wasn't too keen on sitting idle and took matters in his own hands. Finding or rather making our own way through battered service roads we dived through every gap we could find. The frenzied driving stretched every bit of performance from the Etios as we rushed to the airport after we cleared the jam.

Long story short, Bert took a flight later than planned. I followed that by sleeping through boarding and taking a flight later than planned as well. Which allowed me to personally hand over the car to Shumi who would take our Etios to Kolkata before Sandeep and Halley got all chummy on their drive from Kolkata to Chennai and finally back to Bengaluru.