Published: September 14, 2011, 03:56 PM IST
I'm waiting for Sandeep towering at the far edge of my windscreen to give me a countdown. I look past his waist and the seat belt pales in significance against the sheer drop at the edge of the road. If I go off here I don't fancy my chances of coming out of this alive, and if I do, I calculate how much in debt I'd be if I have to crash the very expensive SUV I'm driving. Enough I calculate to keep me in hock for the best years of my life. I glance at the road and see the towering pine trees, hundreds of them all over the mountain and my odds of coming unscathed out of this drop to below 10 per cent. Then I see Sandeep asking if I'm ready, my mind's screaming no but my head's nodding a yes. His request nevertheless is purely processional, countdown he will and I watch his fingers going 5….3, 2, 1, bang. I floor the throttle! What the hell am I getting myself into?
Six weeks ago while planning out the anniversary issue we hit upon a brainwave, why not race a fast exotic sports car against a very talented racer on one of our greatest driving roads in India. For such a feat we'd require to close off some section of road, so that meant seeking help from friends who run motorsport clubs or organised motorsport events. We scoped South India but then realized the monsoons would create havoc. Central and East India were the same unless we were planning something against a hovercraft or speedboat with big life vests.
That left North India, which I admit is one of my favorite destinations to head to anytime of the year. Now if there is any motorsport event in North India that is worth mentioning it's either the Desert Storm or the Raid-de-Himalaya. There were other plans for Rajasthan and Punjab so we decided to go with our plans further up North and enlist help from our friends, namely a fanatic who runs the illustrious Himalayan Motorsport, Vijay Parmar. And through him is where we hit upon a race to the top of the Jalori Pass or the Jalori Jot as it is called locally, one of the toughest stages of the Raid-de-Himalaya.
The Jalori pass stands 3223 meters above sea level which by Himalayan standards isn't very high up. Some of the other passes that you drive across exist at 4500 meters while others soar even higher. So the elevation isn't the challenge, the angle of ascent is. Around six kilometers from the top of Jalori the climb gets so steep engines, transmissions work double overtime and well the result is usually overheating cooling systems. It's sheer irony that at this altitude where the weather is generally cooler machines begin to overheat. This road was a phenomenal stage on the Raid De Himalaya until the route got too commercial ending up with lots of traffic management issues. So around 3 years ago the rally stage was scrapped from the Raid but not from our memories.
Now the drive to Jalori from Shimla is epic as it passes through deep ravines, runs alongside the meandering Beas river and if you come up here in winter it's a wonderland decked in white. The surface itself is in a generally good state of smooth but it's temperamental; it changes every year. Yet it's easy to find obscure little known off-road paths branching out from NH22 that makes any journey to this region exciting. It's not hard then to see why this road identifies itself as one of the best driving adventures in all of India.
That left the choice of vehicle which after much deliberation was whittled down to the Porsche Cayenne S, though in my mind's eye I had set sights on the Cayman S. Vijay Parmar however wasn't of the same opinion. The president of the Himalayan Motorsport association knows these roads, dare I say, more intimately than he knows his spouse and he sagely advised that the Cayman would destroy itself on the road up to Jalori, better then to bring something like the Cayenne.
Now the Cayenne S is no ordinary SUV, it's 400 horsepower of muscle and 500Nm of sinew, a touch more powerful and demanding than the bog standard Porsche SUV. It's also quite an accomplished SUV thanks to Porsche rigging it up with some state of the art off-road gadgetry. Yet the kind of challenges thrown up on the road to the top of Jalori has destroyed several fully-prepped rally cars (ask Gaurav Gill who flipped his rally Esteem on his first Raid outing). The Cayenne then is just an SUV, luxurious on the road and with more comfort and pampering for a metalled world than dirt. What chance does it stand? Exactly what we are here to find out.
The Cayenne I'd like to assert was an SUV I just didn't have any sympathy for, I simply couldn't find it in me to like something that looked this offensive. Oh I may be exaggerating the issue a bit but take a look at all that Porsche has done over nearly eighty years. Every car that's come out of any Porsche facility, be it in Germany, Slovakia or Finland has always been a work of art, mechanically and cosmetically. Until the Cayenne was born, and suddenly you knew that perhaps Porsche didn't have all its marbles in the right place. But how wrong everybody was because singlehandedly the Cayenne turned around Porsche's fortunes making it the most successful model for the company in modern times. The Cayenne is the SUV that not just brought the bread home for Porsche but also the butter, marmalade and coffee.
Then in 2010 Porsche unveiled a new look Cayenne, okay not so much new as much as a upgraded, refined, polished and ironed out version of the original. And well to be honest I still don't find it as appealing as a Q7 (the Cayenne incidentally still shares platforms with the Audi Q7 and the VW Touareg) because the inherent silhouette itself was ungainly and that really hasn't changed by much. Nevertheless only true Porsche enthusiasts will realise that critical changes have been applied to the body as well as the various jeweled accoutrements. For instance the waistline has been dropped, the roofline has a bit more of a slope to it, the windshield is not as upright, the hood applies the Panamera's chiseled treatment and the bumpers look sleeker. Other cosmetic changes include new ovoid headlamps with horizontal LED strips on the bumper, mirrors that now sit on the doors rather than the quarter glass area and the new slimmer wraparound tail lamps. The Cayenne S also sits around five centimetres closer to the ground than the outgoing model but again visually that's not noticeable.
The more visible changes are inside the cabin, the centre console has the Panamera look and feel with the transmission tunnel area around the shift lever embracing the expensive cell phone-like keypad array. The air con vents have dropped lower down and flank the screen. Dozens of buttons can be found everywhere and there's more overhead and our Cayenne S came with the SportDesign steering wheel that has the gearshift paddles on it. The five instrument pods in front of your face are just too sensational for words there are a few changes to them as well, such as the multi information display inside one of them. These new interiors are also swanky and plush, comfort and luxury is top priority and the Cayenne S feels like a very expensive vehicle from the inside. And that is a very good thing when you're touring long distances, because at the end of a very crowded 120kilometres from Chandigarh where we picked up the Cayenne S to our hotel in Shimla, the type of luxury the Cayenne S offers keeps you fresh at the end of the drive. On the days ahead this comfort would play a critical role once the roads changed into nothing more than rutted and rocky mule tracks.
The following day we woke up to a smattering of rain and overcast skies making it an achingly dull morning. At a half past five Shimla fortunately hasn't woken up and we are spared the slow crawl through narrow streets. The Queen of the hill stations has a very crowded audience every single day and in a couple of hours these streets will be teeming with humanity, buses, trucks and private vehicles adding to the chaos. Shimla falls on the old Indo-Tibet route which further north touches large towns such as Rekong Peo and Kaza in the Spiti valley. It's a critical transport hub, goods of all sort pass through Shimla on their way to remote areas and with just one highway you can understand the flurry of activity there must be. If we'd been late the nearly five metre length and two metre width of the Cayenne would pose severe challenges in negotiating these streets. And that size matters because once inside the Cayenne's cabin the periphery of this SUV isn't easy to get familiar with. That also makes the proximity sensors on the park assistance systems go nuts until you switch it off. Then you begin to bite your nails, wonder if there's enough space for the edges of the bumper to slide past the stone walls on one side and the parked cars on the other without getting nicked.
Ten minutes later however we are past Shimla thundering down towards Narkanda at a decent clip when the road just disintegrated ahead of us. This isn't how the road was I recollect, my thoughts shifting back to a few years ago when we'd brought another bunch of SUV's to the icy environs of Narkanda and the Hatu peak. Right now what lay ahead of us was tarmac turned to dust and craters that could only have been caused by some heavy shelling, isn't this in the safe from hostility zone I wonder? And yet the Cayenne S drove across that mess like it was all flat and smooth. Of course there was the odd ruffle and the slight nudge inside the cabin but on the whole the adaptive air suspension supported the body and isolated us from any discomfort.
The adaptive suspension technology isn't new, the air suspension features self leveling, ride height control and Porsche's active suspension management (PASM) all of which combine to provide the best balance between handling and ride. It's more intuitive and much more accomplished than what VW or Audi use, perhaps because this system is one of the many that are entirely designed by Porsche alone? It steam irons surface deformities while maintaining a steady yet high pace. The ride isn't hard, neither is it too stiff and cleverly it manages to offer a sense of rigidity without affecting ride comfort. The Cayenne S felt soft and plush despite pushing it hard through the corners and across potholes without waking up my co-passengers fast asleep in their seats.
After the torturous 65km stretch between Shimla to Narkanda, the road flows in incredibly smooth and fast waves. Corners come up rapidly with dozens of sweeping and immensely wide switchbacks testing the handling prowess of the Cayenne S. This section of tarmac that gradually slopes downhill draws the full abilities of Porsche's active suspension management system and Porsche torque vectoring plus system. The systems can automatically sense when they are needed to contribute their bit though you could also slip the Cayenne into sport mode and stiffen up the dampers to engage their facilities. PASM and PTV Plus controls suspension damping and torque split between the rear wheels to optimize body roll and stability in both high speed and off-road conditions. PASM offers three drive selection modes, Comfort, Normal and Sport - guess what I slotted it in - and as I mentioned earlier it negates body roll almost completely. Torque vectoring plus in the meanwhile senses wheel slip in corners and reduces torque to that wheel while increasing it at the laterally opposite end to provide even more stability. So in very few words you can drive the Cayenne S with as much confidence as you would a sports car.
It brought to mind the immense grip, poise and negligible body roll that BMW's sports activity vehicle the X6 offered which simply blew everyone's mind in the edit team. But the X6 was so stiffly sprung it was exhausting to drive within the hour. The Cayenne S is well, twice as superior in that respect because it does both handling and ride comfort extremely well.
These 30 odd kilometers between Narkanda and Sainj also bring to light the engine and transmission of the Cayenne S. With the 2010 revision the older V8 engine was enhanced to offer stronger power and torque ratings. So the Cayenne S now makes 400 horsepower with 500Nm of torque. It's naturally aspirated but with direct injection and a 32-valve layout along with variable cam timing performance is sharper and quicker. The engine responds beautifully to throttle inputs and the kick downs from the 8-speed automatic transmission are fast and accompanied by a delicious engine note. Acceleration is explosive and the resulting gs that push your ass firmly into the seats are very satisfying. Yet this engine is refined and smooth when you need it to be while low rpm torque is immense which results in better driveability. But a word of caution, the Cayenne S even on the most economical mode with the utmost discipline to not mash the throttle pedal into the floor boards does not offer great fuel efficiency.
Pretty soon then we got closer to the base of Jalori only to learn that both the short and moderately long route to the top was shut due to a landslide. This is the monsoon season and small cloudbursts often lead to massive erosion blocking the road up to the pass. There was nothing else to do but take the longest way around which you won't find on any map. Neither did we and that made it all the more exciting because here we were in a Porsche that costs nearly a crore and we were about to drive it way beyond the back of beyond. And that was exactly what the route was like once we made a left at Luri heading towards the village of Chhatri, Garhagushaini and over the Chhajgalu pass, one of three passes in this range of mountains before we hit Jibhi, our halt for the night.
At the left after Luri the road stops to exist and pretty soon you're deep within territory that has nothing but mule tracks. The lush hillsides replete with conifers soon changes to jagged rock. A few kilometers ahead a slight drizzle soon turned into a steady downpour, thick enough to create small rivulets flowing against us. And then we got to the really fun bit between a village called Shuad and another called Chhatri. The road or whatever it was that we were driving on began ascending, the rain had turned the surface mucky and in between I could see boulders the size of footballs only not so spherical and not so smooth poking their way out of the surface.
My only fear at this point was that the Cayenne S did not have a full size spare, instead it comes with a space saver. That's as good as carrying a string bikini as your only change of clothing when hiking up the Himalayas, the space saver if called upon then would be woefully inadequate in this terrain. But hats off to Porsche for providing tyres that are incredibly grippy on tarmac but are also immensely capable off it too. Those 205/50 19" Pirelli P Sport kept finding all the spots where grip was available and kept trudging up without breaking stride.
Of course the Cayenne is also electronically tricked out for just this kind of bashing.