Pocket Adventurer: Audi Q2 on the Manali-Leh highway

Tuhin Guha Updated: November 24, 2021, 10:15 PM IST
It's coming up to midnight and the Audi Q2's temperature gauge shows a bone-chilling -5.5 degrees Celsius. But what it doesn't say is that we're climbing up to 5,328m to cross Tanglang La, the highest of the five mountain passes that you need to negotiate on the Manali-Leh highway. The air was already thin when we set off from Pang, after an extended charging stop for the e-tron we were chaperoning on our OD Electrifies Ladakh drive, and it's thinning further rapidly as we make this climb. To liven up the situation a notch, we'd just been warned by some of the jawans at the Army base camp in Pang that hanging around here is not a good idea at all. Acute Mountain Sickness claims a fair few unsuspecting victims every month and spending the night here is calling for trouble. So with my co-passenger not holding up too well, and it being my first time here, making a dash for Leh was the only way to go.

It is in this fairly precarious situation that I fully start to appreciate the Audi Q2. The e-tron had been taking up most of our attention and I hadn't yet driven the small crossover in anger on this trip, my impression of it still bound by the time I spent with it at home earlier in the year. The EA888 2.0-litre turbo-petrol is one of the defining four-cylinder engines of our times, and as always, the twin-clutch gearbox it pairs with doesn't miss a step. Which means I can concentrate fully on the road ahead, and the Q2 carves up the winding, black-top tarmac leading up to the pass like it's all in a day's work. The crossover is always alert to my inputs, even on the quite steep downhill section after the pass, where the gearbox is completely at ease with hard downshifts to let you use engine braking to the fullest, the actual brakes being equally reassuring with their linear calibration and feel.

The first time you find yourself on the Manali-Leh highway the scenery is surreal enough to make you forget that this is one of the more inhospitable places in India, or even the world, to be in. Let alone drive through. My more experienced colleagues tell me the tarmac road now makes it a tamer experience. Until recently, rough trails up to the passes and sandy fesh-fesh on the plains were the order of the day. But even now, the sheer scale of this environment is intimidating. The road winds its way through valleys lined with immense snow-capped peaks or is carved out from the sides of these mountains with a sheer drop on one side and jutting rocks on the other. The altitude brings with it some light-headedness but thankfully I've followed advice and kept altitude sickness at bay.

The Audi Q2 isn't this apprehensive here thankfully. The clinical precision that some might critique Audis for is quite welcome in this instance. The Q2 is just the right size on these narrow roads, there's always enough space for a truck to pass and the open shoulder to the edge always seems adequate to park the small crossover when making way for traffic. Then there's the near-perfect driving position, which lets me place the Q2 on the road without much doubt and takes away quite a bit of the fatigue you can expect here. And while most sections are too tight and narrow to let you fully wring out the 190PS and 320 Nm that the engine makes, the precise steering and the poise from the MQB architecture means that the Q2 feels sure-footed and agile all the time. Of course, the quattro AWD is a major contributor to this feeling. It works as intended, almost entirely anonymously, and gives what is still a fairly high-riding car a tightness that's imperative around the winding, blind turns that make up much of the route.

Despite this road now becoming quite civilized, some sections are still tricky. A sandy section along the Indus past Jispa is the most prominent of these. The fine eroded sand that makes up this place needed us to be patient, and while the lead car did plot out a safe route, the deep fesh-fesh dredged up by a steady stream of traffic and the rocky outcrops made progress far from straightforward. But here again, the Q2 was far more at ease than we gave it credit for at first. Just placing the wheels in the right place and keeping momentum was all it took. Having said that, the Q2 is best used as a light off-roader. The gruff shortcuts that litter the area around the Gata loops were largely beyond the small Audi's capabilities and some very careful manoeuvring was needed around the rocky trails that still make up some bits of the road. The simple hatch shape hampers approach and departure angles while the steep slopes also had us reaching for the missing hill-descent function.

But maybe that is asking for a bit too much from the Audi. The Q2 will almost entirely be used as a small city commuter, with a perky engine and high-riding stance that helps gain an edge in traffic-light battles. It's not without its flaws, the price being the biggest one, and we couldn't help but wish for a few more creature comforts and a bit more space, both for ourselves and our luggage.

That said, by the time we'd reach the end of our trip and put in well over 2,000 kms on the small Audi, these only felt like minor inconveniences. When we started the trip, the Q2s were almost unfairly treated as a side-act to the e-tron. The situation had turned by the end, with the group now well in awe of the small crossover and the great mix of capability and enjoyment it delivered over the 10 days we spent with it. We've all come back with dreams of having one parked in our garage, done up to suit our preferences. A win for the Q2 then.

Images by Sumit Gaikwad

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