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Born to Rann

24th Dec 2016 6:00 am

Open ghats, fast highways, two car museums and the unlimited expanse of the Rann of Kutch. And one Mustang. We slip into the saddle for an epic ride.

Have you ever experienced the beauty of the Rann of Kutch at sunrise? Ever stood on dry land and experienced a 360-degree view of the horizon? Or, put a car in cruise control and climbed into the back seat? No? Then you better pack your bags.

So there we were, buckled up and ready to take off. Just that the flight was headed to Udaipur! Isn’t the Rann of Kutch in another state? Or was this some elaborate ruse? It had to be. Things, however, worked out quite differently. Waiting for us at 6.30 in the morning was a car with an engine slightly larger than I had expected. The folks from Ford had brought along a Mustang! What a bunch of nice people. The first time I drove Ford’s Mustang was at the Buddh F1 circuit. Of course, pounding around a track is fun, but the Mustang never really felt at home there. The open road, with fast flowing sections, is what you need to extract the best from this car, and that’s exactly what we were about to do.

The first sign that the Mustang is great for touring shows up when we have to load the boot. We’ve  packed light of course, but there was really no need to. At 408 litres, the boot is large and would have had no trouble swallowing more bags. It really does help that there’s also a spare, although it’s of the narrower front tyre’s size. It really is an essential bit of kit if you want to go out into the wild.

The Mustang powers out of Udaipur; big V8 makes shrinking the miles dead easy.

But I can’t wait to get going, so I hit the start button. The engine isn’t loud thanks to the ever-tightening sound level norms, but what a sound it is. The growl fills the cold morning air. At idle there’s a slow rhythmic pulse that filters through, and when I flex the long-travel accelerator, the V8 emits a lovely, smooth boom. The 5.0 V8 pumps out a strong 401hp, and once out of the airport, I can feel every one of those horses. Flexing my foot just a bit elicits a soft push in the back, accompanied by a deep rumble. When I lift off the gas, the noise just widens, like there’s a Second World War bomber following you. This is going to be a fun drive, and the route suits the Mustang to a T. The first 250km leg runs from Udaipur to Ahmedabad down one side of the Aravalli range. On the way, and time permitting, we plan to stop at two car museums. The drive down to the Rann of Kutch is likely to happen late in the evening – we know we’re going to find ourselves stuck at the museums. That’s the plan for today, but tomorrow it’s all on the Rann.

On the way out we push through a bit of traffic and are soon on NH76, headed south towards Ahmedabad, the long, wide stretches allowing me to push the accelerator pedal a bit further. The engine is a gem, but it’s not your typically American, large-capacity, naturally aspirated V8. There’s a lusty pull as soon as I hit the gas, and the crispness here gets me rubbing my hands in glee. But, unlike other Yankee iron blocks that are practically done by 5,000rpm, peak power comes in at 6,500rpm and the big V8 is happy winding all the way to 7,000. So imagine, you get all the shove and response of a big block V8, and then it continues to pull harder and harder to 7,000rpm. The ramp up is surprisingly linear, but needless to say, once past 4,000, the Mustang feels just shattering.

The Ford Mustang’s ‘GT’ moniker is apt; it’s absolutely super on long road trips.

A few enthusiastic runs to the redline later, we settle down to a pace more conducive to a long-distance drive. The gearing is quite tall and cruising along at 100kph is a nice and relaxed affair, with the engine ticking over at around 1,700rpm. All I need to do if I want to overtake is simply hit the gas. The gearbox isn’t the quickest around and when you are in a hurry the gearshifts are a bit slow. But for general cruising, it’s just about right. Still, for more spirited driving you can put the gearbox in S, where it holds on to lower gears for long. And if you want to get a bit more involved, there are the paddles. Out on the road, the Mustang carries speed effortlessly, and sitting calmly at a relatively high speed is no sweat. So, before we know it, the Mustang is eating up the miles and shrinking distances.

About 100km south comes our first stop. A detour left, 25km into Dungarpur and we are at the Hotel Udai Bilas Palace. Dungarpur is a small place by Udaipur standards, but equally charming and the palace well-maintained. As if the excellent rooms, the lake and an authentic palace vibe aren’t enough, the hotel also houses a car museum. The collection is not very old, with most cars from the ’60s to the ’80s, but if like me, you’re about 40, you’ll find a lot of cars that you adored during your childhood. I completely flip out on one of my favourites, a lovely dark red Jaguar XJ-S. The line-up also houses American, European and Japanese cars. The museum has an American Diner-themed room, crammed with automobile memorabilia like scale models, paintings, prints, and other curios, and to add to the feel, the ’80s American pop and rock played all through the museum.

The Mustang too will be a classic some day: fits right in, doesn’t it?

Shoot done; we head back to the road. I’ve put together a playlist of American blues and rock and roll, and we crank up the volume as the Mustang effortlessly canters into the horizon. Though I’m absolutely thrilled with the V8, I find I have to fiddle with the seat quite often. I’m not uncomfortable, but the driving position isn’t 100 percent perfect, far from it. And though the design of the dash is fabulous, most of the plastics here are put together poorly. It’s no Mini on the inside, that’s for sure. We do make full use of all the equipment though, stuff like Ford’s SYNC 2 system, the 8.0-inch touchscreen, and the 9-speaker audio system.

A few kilometres later, the road begins to drop away. It’s a ghat with long, sweeping fast corners that tighten up on themselves, and the Mustang is up for the job. I select the sportiest setting, both for the steering and the gearbox, but even though the car should be correctly set up, I struggle to work up a rhythm. Sport+ just doesn’t work. The gearshifts are marginally quicker, but the gearbox lurches every time I shift, and that spoils things. I also don’t care for much is the ‘heavier’ Sport setting for the electric steering – it actually makes the wheel feel heavier and less connected. So I go back to the milder settings, and immediately it feels better. It’s no BMW M4 though. Yes, the Mustang gives you a lot of confidence when you get on the brakes and power out of corners, the rear stepping out marginally feels fantastic too. And the way the V8 hurls you forward when it’s on song, pulling all the way to 7,000rpm, is special too. But the loose and wooly steering means that the Mustang never really feels confident or planted getting into corners, and that’s a bit of a shame.

Once off the ghats, the long stretches of traffic-free highway allow me to indulge a bit again,
and the kilometres just fly by. Though it does take a couple of hours, before we know it, we are
on Ahmedabad’s ring road and headed to our next destination, the late Pranlal Bhogilal’s ‘Auto World’ vintage car museum. It houses over 100 vintage and classic cars and this one is chock-full of old Rolls-Royces: how many million dollar cars are here is anyone’s guess. It’s a must-see even if you aren’t into vintage cars; you’ll find a few brands that you may not have heard of like Mors of France. And Hispano Suiza too.

Long straights, open highways; the Mustang is in its element.

As expected, the light is fading and we head for our night halt at the Rann Riders Resort in Dasada that sits on the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch. For the most parts the roads are smooth, save the occasional broken surfaces and oddly built speed breakers. The Mustang’s clearance is 137mm, and while that’s better than most sportscars, the long wheelbase still requires utmost care and a diagonal drive over speed breakers. It gets through nearly every obstacle without kissing the ground, except for a railway crossing that has a speed breaker probably made by a contractor who no doubt failed geometry.

The next morning we are up at 5. The Rann Riders staff arrange two jeeps, and we enter the Little Rann of Kutch just as the sun rises: what a magical experience, seeing the sun come up the horizon, nothing before you but the flat earth. If you’re wondering, the Rann is actually a shallow salt marsh when it rains, which begins to dry up at this time of the year, leaving a flat desert expanse that is said to be among the largest of its kind in the world. Drive further in and you are in the heart of the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary. Of course, we do see quite a few of these relatives of the prehistoric horse, with their beautiful fawn and white markings and we marvel at the difficult environment in which they live; a salty cactus-like shrub being their only sustenance. This unique environment is also home to the Indian wolf, the desert fox, Nilgai and many species of birds, which live on the small islands dotting the vast pan.

It’s easy to lose perspective here and get lost. Look around for too long and the flat plain with the horizon all around can get you dizzy. The vast barren flat land, all that openness – it’s mesmerising.

If there ever was a road to nowhere, this is where you would find it.

I almost forget why we are here.

But then I see the Mustang and it’s back to the business at hand. The V8’s fired up, the traction control and ESP switched off, and soon I’m flying as straight as an arrow, kicking up a small sandstorm in my wake. The plan was to do some runs using some of the Mustang’s cool track apps, like the ‘Christmas Tree’ countdown lights, and the acceleration and braking timer, but I’m having so much fun sliding the car around the few corners on the path, I don’t bother. And frankly, the sand is still a bit damp underneath, so I have to stick to the small dry pockets I find, which limits my antics. But later, near the verges, I do spot some nice flat hard surfaces where power slides, drifts and 360-degree spins follow. With over 400hp and rear-wheel drive, the Mustang is so easy to slide, it’s just a blast.

Must come back in summer when the sand is nice and firmly packed and good enough to hit 200kph!

If there is one sportscar that can happily tour the country, it’s the Mustang. Sure, you have to watch the underside a bit and it doesn’t particularly like corners, but it seats four, is happy with a diet of regular low-octane fuel, and has a large usable boot. Moreover, the relaxed cruising of the engine with immense power on tap, the decent ride and lovely strains of the V8 will simply leave you enthralled.

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