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Autocar Rewind: Kargil to Kanyakumari Expedition

22nd Mar 2020 7:00 am

Back in 2001, Autocar India coined the term ‘K2K’ with an epic driving adventure from Kargil to Kanyakumari. 4,000km, 2 distinct cars and 1 incredible journey.

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Coronavirus has ground the world to a halt but we at Autocar India promise to keep the content going. We’ve dived into our big library of classics and in this second edition of the Autocar Rewind series we’re taking you all back to 2001. The feature? ‘K2K’ - Kargil to Kanyakumari by road. The route might be on every adventurer's list today but, back then, it was almost a journey of exploration, one that left us wide-eyed and had us witness and experience the incredible diversity of India. The peculiar choice of cars added even more colour to this epic drive. So grab a coffee, sit back, and relive K2K with us.

The wind was blowing hard enough to heave all of us away into the deep barren valley as we precariously took measured steps to keep movements within our control. The temperature read minus seven degrees and the only way to escape the cold blast was to hide behind the seven-foot-tall signstone that said ‘Fotu La, 4091m’. This was the Fotu-La Pass, the highest point on the Kargil to Leh road. All of us had more or less the same thought running through our minds: “What on earth are we doing here?”

This was the very first leg of our Kargil to Kanyakumari (K2K) drive. A drive from the northernmost point of India crossing hostile, snow-covered mountain passes, through the plains, to end at Kanyakumari, the southernmost point, where the Indian Ocean mingles with the Bay of Bengal on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west.

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Started from Khardung La, the highest road in the world.

Two cars, four people, and a land called India. This was diversity at its best, from the mountainous roads and sub-zero temperatures in the north to the tropical flatlands down south. The two cars chosen were very different, reflecting this diversity and representing the opposite ends of the automotive spectrum in India. One, the best-selling car in India, the Maruti 800 and the other, the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz E240, a car that is 10 times costlier than its companion. Twelve days after that windswept sojourn on the Fotu-La we stood at staring at Vivekananda Rock.

The wind blew hard here too but this time it was welcome relief from the sweltering 37-degree heat. Staring at the three seas meeting together at Kanyakumari and the two cars innocently parked with bystanders milling around, each of us felt a sense of achievement. I reminisced about that moment on the Fotu-La and ran my mind over the last few days.

We’d driven the two cars across snow-covered passes, across iced-up streams and traversed roads that would have challenged a 4x4. We’d blasted them across the plains, coaxed them across narrow, broken roads and thrown them around some twisty southern roads to cover over 4000km from Kargil to Kanyakumari. We’d driven through the diversity that epitomises India — from the barren moonland of Ladakh through the cultivated plains of Punjab, carrying on through the dense forests of central India to end at the coast in Kanyakumari. We’d faced weather as diverse as it could get: snowstorms, hail, bone-biting cold, dust storms, lashing rain, thunder and lightning, and burning heat, but through all this both man and machine shone through. K2K, as the expedition has come to be known, was finally over!

“Ouch,” I winced inwardly as Brigadier-Major SS Randhawa of the 121 Infantry squeezed my hand as if he were handling pliers to cut the barbed wire of a POW camp. “Good morning,” he boomed and released my hand before I could draw out my driving licence to show proof that I was on his side.

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Brigadier-Major SS Randhawa of 121 Infantry, flags off the expedition cars on a cold morning in Kargil.

The brigadier had kindly agreed to wave our fancy yellow flag outside his headquarters in Kargil to flag off our K2K drive. As punctuality goes hand in hand with the armed forces, we were there on the dot of eight. The cars gleamed with their new stickers telling the world what we were doing. High on the mountain above them we could just about make out a picket that stood keeping an unrelenting vigil across  the LoC.

Breakfast with the Indian Army consisted of precisely cut sandwiches and strong, refreshing coffee. A colonel kept telling us about how bad the roads in Bihar were and we should attempt that route for a true test of the cars.

The army chaps rushed off soon after flag-off because the Pakistanis had begun their daily barrage of shells across the LoC.

Our team, starting off from Kargil, consisted of Hormazd Sorabjee, the editor, Kartik Ganesh, who is in charge of Autocar India’s website, Sajid Ansari from Mercedes-Benz India Ltd, and Preeti Prasad and Hassan from CNBC, who would be covering the Kargil to Leh leg for the television channel.

Barely three kilometres after we’d tanked up and set off from Kargil, Hormazd had to pull the Merc hard to the left and brake for an Ashok Leyland Stallion that came hurtling around a corner. It was the first of 30-odd army trucks that formed a convoy; all we could do was sit tight and wait for them to pass. What’s incredible is the speed the soldiers can maintain on those narrow and twisty roads, some of them with a field gun in tow.

The 236km road from Kargil to Leh is well maintained though it’s inevitable that there are bad stretches. The Mercedes’ ambient temperature gauge read two degrees below zero and was declining steadily. The low temperatures didn’t seem to affect the cars at all and throughout the Himalayan stage, even in the minus 10 degrees at Patseo, they both fired up in a single crank.

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A beautiful land with beautiful people — a Kashmiri girl looks on.

In our politeness and formalities we really didn’t do justice to the breakfast laid out, so 20 minutes after starting off from Kargil the hunger pangs started. But this wasn’t your regular national highway with ‘dhabas’ and restaurants every now and then. A sighting of a solitary horse or goat in ten kilometres is considered proof enough that the place is inhabited. The first place where there was any semblance of an eating joint was Mulbekh. Mulbekh, incidentally is the cultural border of Jammu & Kashmir; from here to the east, Buddhism is predominant and west of it towards Kargil, Drass and Srinagar, Islam. Evidence of this is the seven-metre tall Maitreya statue of the future Buddha carved from the face of a gigantic boulder. The ancient inscription tells that it was carved in the seventh century.

We stopped awhile here to enquire about the food, use the cameras, while Sajid got into antics with a goat that was trying to chew off a sticker from his beloved Mercedes. The goat won because it had menacing horns and Sajid, a vulnerable rear.

All Mulbekh could offer was omelettes, of which we’d already had our fill during our brief tenure in Leh. So, we politely refused, gave the shopowner some enthusiastic ‘Juleys’ — the universal all- meaning greeting used by the Ladakhis — and carried on to Wakha. There it was omelettes once again but with rice and vegetables too. Not a gourmet meal but good enough to keep you charged for the roads ahead.

The ruggedness of the stark land makes it breathtaking to behold and there’s a very balanced stand-off between the twin impulses you feel — wanting to drive or take in the sights. Doing both simultaneously is out of question unless you want to leave your mark on the road in the form of a ‘In fond memory of...’ road marker. But the logic used by all of us here was very simple: you could always come back here to take in the sights, you could even drive here again, but it was a rare chance that you would drive a Benz here again. And so the most mentioned phrase during this drive was: “Er... Hormazd, would you like to drive the Maruti?”, to which he readily agreed.

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ABS and traction control allows carefree zipping in water with the E.

The little Maruti had some tricks up its sleeve too, the MPFI engine is the fire in its belly and it astonished with its acceleration in the rarefied atmosphere. I remember the last 97km from Khalsi to Leh where Hormazd was driving the Maruti and I the Benz; I thought I’d have to keep slowing down for the Maruti to catch up. But I had a hard time just keeping up, I very clearly remember watching the Merc’s speedo climb to 90 and the Maruti pulling away, ahead all the while. That drive was the first of the mad ones, because the 800 would round a corner full blast, and fortified in the knowledge that nothing was coming in the opposite direction, I’d follow suit with my leg flat on the throttle with the autobox stuck in manual mode. The 800 would go around with a little slip and slide, the driver correcting it all the time. The computer in the Benz took care of all that with its ESP. It was a lot of fun now, but just a day ago on our drive to Kargil from Leh, most of us were in misery. Altitude Moun-tain Sickness had hit in a big way. It was the result of flying into Leh from Delhi and setting out for Kargil without getting acclimatised. It is imperative to rest for at least 36 hours before attempting anything strenuous.

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At the top of the world! The 800 takes in the sights at Khardung La.

The excursion to Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road and 50km from Leh, was an absolute disaster. Oh the cars performed admirably, the Maruti pulled one over the Merc by taking the steep slopes in the very thin air without a stutter, whereas the Merc balked and stalled thrice. The souring factor was actress Manisha Koirala and her band of Bollywood boys and girls who had come there for a shoot. They came, they spat, they dirtied and they caused a nuisance. The film unit had camped there, blocking the pass, with the crew littering the place with plastic. Even Sajid Ansari, who used to worship Ms Koirala, sadly declared that he would now make Kareena Kapoor the focus of his devotion.

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Hindi filmstar Manisha Koirala was at Khardung La for a film shoot.

Leh’s charm lies in its aloofness from the rest of the world and needs a good four days to explore at leisure, but at 0445 hrs the next day we started for Manali, 486km away, and by far the most testing part of the entire drive. Four high passes had to be traversed, the highest of which was the Taglang La at 5328m. The road, constructed by the Border Roads Organisation, is very susceptible to landslides and there’s always the chance of snowfall blocking out the passes.

The CNBC crew had decided to fly back to Delhi from Leh to meet their deadlines and Nilanjana Roy  from Outlook Traveller magazine joined the rest of us.

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Altitude sickness hits hard; drinking water is a must to combat it.

The first test came up a few kilometres before the Taglang La as we had to cross a stream that had frozen over across the road. Sajid nonchalantly walked across it, pulling at a cigarette without a care in the world. I followed suit forgetting that I weighed 20kg more — the ice cracked leaving me upto my knees in freezing water. Once we’d managed to break all the ice to see where the rocks were located, the cars were easy to manoeuvre across. Taglang La was freezing — while the four of us cursed the wind, Kartik swore at every space agency in the world. He needed four satellites to communicate with his Global Positioning System (which he carried in a holster like a gun) and it could detect only three. So, while it could give accurate latitude and longitude readings, it wasn’t so for the altitude.

Beyond Taglang La come the More plains, surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan ranges. The road through here is flat and straight. This is where the Maruti pulled its last and final trick on the Merc. Being small and overhang-free, it could literally fly over the sudden dips that came up, without a bother. If one tried that with the Merc he’d probably leave bits and pieces of its front bumper in every dip.

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Rohtang Pass arrives after an arduous drive from Leh. This gateway pass closes down for the winter, isolating Ladakh from the world.

The entire road from Leh to the Rohtang Pass gives one a feeling of adventure bordering on a little fear from the knowledge that should the vehicle give up, you’re badly stuck. The huge, barren mountains stacked one over the other and the vastness of the entire place makes you feel very inconsequential. This is Mother Nature at her wildest, harshest best; here she makes the rules and you follow them. The people  most aware of this are the roadworking gangs who constantly tarr bad sections to keep this crucial road serviceable. The spectacular scenery is absolutely mind-blowing. From the wind-eroded brown mountainsides to the purple-coloured rocks and the deep blue sky, it’s a little too overwhelming to take in. The spine-tingling Gata Loops that come up after Lachlung La (5060m) are 20km of switchback roads with 21 hairpin bends. They give no second chances should you make a mistake around a corner.

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A feat of sorts by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Ladakh roads snake through the harsh terrain. Many soldiers lose their lives during summer snow clearance.

Patseo was where we interacted with the Indian Army again and halted overnight at their camp. After two days of omelettes and biscuits, the five-course meal was manna from heaven. As we shared experiences with the two captains dining with us, one of them told us about his three-month posting at a place where the temperature dropped to minus 50 degrees. After that every shiver any of us had was looked upon with disdain. It was only minus 9 after all! That night was all about sharing; Kartik shared his bed with a baby scorpion, Nilanjana with a few bed bugs, and I with Sajid Ansari.

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Snow gives way to alpine forests of Keylong as you descend to Manali.

The roads deteriorated after Patseo due to a recent landslide. Progress slowed down considerably and it took more than two hours to reach Keylong just 46km away. Keylong is the last town lying in the rainshadow area before you exit the Pir Panjal range. Proof of this is the sudden abundance of trees after Keylong. At this time of the year their leaves were yellow and the sun reflecting off them gave the entire mountainside a golden hue.

Sissu, 26km from Keylong, was where we had to cross the last major obstacle. The town has a stream — aptly named Pagal Nallah — that gushes wildly down the mountainside across the road in full force during winter. Though it was only early October, Pagal Nallah was by no means tame and the cars had to be carefully coaxed through.

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The cabin of the Mercedes completely isolates you from the harsh conditions of the world outside.

Past Rohtang and Marhi (where we sampled some tastebud-tingling ‘parathas’), Manali and its hotel rooms with running hot water was a welcome stop for rest and rejuvenation.

Moving on from Manali and it was time do some carefree driving. Up on the Leh-Manali road, one’s mind would always be on the underbody and how to get the car across without anything touching that. After Manali, the motive was to get the speedo needle to touch three digits as soon as possible. No compromise on safety mind you, as all this was attempted on clean, open roads with see-through corners.

Now the Benz, getting her own back with Hormazd at the wheel, was a speck in the horizon as the little 800 screamed its guts out as I pushed the small car around a sweeping corner. Finally at Mandi the magic words were spoken and heaven broke loose: “Rishad, why don’t you drive the Benz?” “Okay, if you insist . . .” I replied and strapped myself in, with Nilanjana and Sajid riding with me. Kartik took over the Maruti and Hormazd lost himself on his phone, now that we were in network land.

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HP dealers gave us a very warm welcome all along the K2K route.

Down into the plains across the Himachal Pradesh border, it was a straight run to Delhi. We broke the journey twice, once for a satisfying lunch in Chandigarh and at a Hindustan Petroleum pump en route. Every HP pump on the entire route had emblazoned banners welcoming us and we were treated like royalty at every fuel station.

After a two-day halt in Delhi we set off for our run across central India down to the very tip of the country. The first night halt was to be Gwalior and that’s where we were headed via Agra.

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The light drizzle in Delhi brewed into a full-fledged thunderstorm by the time we were past Mathura. Lightning flashed everywhere with one bolt striking the road 20 metres ahead of the Benz. To get to Gwalior from Agra one has to go through Agra town; Sajid and Vivek Bhat (who joined the expedition in Delhi) in the Benz and the 800 respectively, had to call upon all their expertise to drive through the unruly traffic consisting of everything from stray cows to trailer trucks.

The HP pump dealers in Agra had a refreshing meal ready for us, which was washed down by some super tea served in earthen cups. Somehow, it had got into Kartik’s head that dacoits were rampant on the Agra-Gwalior stretch and that it should never be attempted at night. And here we were poised to start towards Gwalior at 1945hrs in a thunderstorm. So he holstered his GPS and asked every living being at the pump over and over again whether the dacoits were active. They assured him they weren’t and were on the brink of putting up a banner to that effect, alongside the one welcoming us, before he let up.

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India’s geographic centre at Nagpur — 23°30.52N, 78°56.90E.

The POA for the next day was to drive from Gwalior to Nagpur, a mere 708km, piece of cake or so we thought. Driving into Nagpur 18 hours later we stood severely humbled by the miserable Madhya Pradesh roads. Though the first stretch from Gwalior to Jhansi along NH 75 is smooth and fast, it’s the road from Sagar to Lakhnadon that gets you cursing. Unfortunately we had to do this entire 150km stretch in pitch darkness and the chilling underbody dread returned as I put the Benz from one crater to another, sometimes going completely off the road as a truck charged down in the opposite direction. That particular stretch was also very insect infested — every time the door opened, the inside of the Merc lit up like a cricket stadium and the insects made a beeline for the sleeping Kartik.

A further 191km separated Lakhnadon from Nagpur, but good roads made this a pleasant night drive. Vivek seemed to have some sort of understanding with the little 800 — he could consistently coax it to 130kph, whereas with the rest of us the car would flatten out at 120kph.

Nagpur to Bangalore, through Hyderabad, was a hassle-free drive. Smooth and fast roads had everyone in a state of exhilaration and after so many days on the road, we’d got into the rhythm of packing in long distances at a stretch. The superb Hyderabad-Bangalore highway had us using the Benz’s cruise control, but it was definitely more thrilling to stamp down on the accelerator and revel in the sheer thrill as the mighty Benz kicked down and roared ahead on a loose rein. 

The second ‘flat’ on the drive was between Bangalore and Salem. In the pitch darkness I slammed the Maruti into a pothole which left the left-hand-side wheel rims bent. The front wheel lost pressure, but the problem was solved by simply removing the tyre and having the rim banged into shape at the local ‘puncture-wallah’.

South India, especially the roads after Bangalore, feels congested and this was diversity at its very best. Compared to the desolate landscape of Ladakh, southern India definitely seems overcrowded. The people down south are also more inquisitive; up north people couldn’t be bothered about what a Maharash-tra-registered Merc was doing in Leh and how it had got there. In the south everyone asked questions.

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Driving the last few kilometres past a field of windmills to Kanyakumari, along a palm-tree-lined road, a sense of exhilaration came on and grew stronger as the expedition drew to a close and peaked as we parked at Kanyakumari with the majestic Vivekananda Rock in sight.

We had travelled 4136km across India, through 11 states and two Union Territories,  varied terrain and all kinds of roads since that cold morning in Kargil 12 days ago.

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Ended at the southernmost tip of India at Kanyakumari.

The round orange ball of light that was the setting sun silhouetted the fishing boats at sea. Standing on the beach and watching the sky’s gradual change of colour being reflected in the waters of the three Indian seas that merge at Kanyakumari seemed to wash away all the travel weariness accumulated from the long hours of driving over the past fortnight.

The day had ended and so had K2K.

Poles Apart

For 14 days and 4000-odd kilometres, the best car in India had a date with the best-selling one. How did the Merc E240 and the Maruti 800 with such diverse personalities hit it off on K2K?

The contrast between these two cars was more diverse than all the terrain we drove through. The Mercedes E-class epitomises luxury on wheels, a moving monument to technological excellence that is synonymous with cars that wear the three-pointed star. On the other hand, the basic 800 is the staple car for the masses, the best-selling model in the country for an uninterrupted 18 years. Apart from the fact that both cars drank petrol, they had little else in common.

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The Benz and the 800 tear down the More plains in an unequal race.

The E-class’ natural habitat is the swankiest area of town or the porch of a five-star hotel. So when we took the stately Merc up to the harsh and rugged moonscape of Ladakh, it was like forcing Sylvester ‘Rocky’ Stallone to box with Mike Tyson. The big E did seem out of place in this remote region, gingerly negotiating areas that would make a 4x4 baulk. This must have been the first E-class in Ladakh. But no matter what, the Merc never lost its stoic composure, transporting us in the only manner it knows — with utter class.

The tank-like build, magic carpet ride and silky refinement of the Merc completely isolates you from the outside. Not a speck of dust from the endless dirt roads entered the cabin whilst the climate control system maintained a consistent temperature, however hot or cold it was outside. Cocooned in luxury you unwittingly whisk yourself to ludicrous speeds, which is fine until without warning a pothole or a nasty dip suddenly appears. You have to then activate the very effective brakes which immediately haul you down to a crawl.

The E-class’s relatively low ground clearance and long overhangs makes you treat every speedbreaker, dip or pothole with respect. Tip-toeing though rocky river beds, we often scraped the underbelly of the Merc with a sickening crunch and were ever grateful to the solid sump guard which was heavily bruised by the time we reached Delhi.

On the narrow mountain roads, the E-class’s girth could be felt, especially when we had to overtake an army truck or make way for an oncoming one on roads that were as wide as the car itself. The sheer size and weight of the car and the soggy feel of the steering make it far from nimble. The E-class’s main talent was its amazing sure-footedness on all surfaces, which instilled a supreme sense of security. Driving flat out on bumpy, undulating roads with fast sweeping corners, the E-class showed astonishing poise.

The big V6 petrol was velvet smooth, you could never hear it at idle and even when pulled to the red line it felt like a distant murmur. What was disappointing was the engine’s lazy throttle response, further amplified by the auto ’box which had a distinctive lag before kicking down. It was more thrilling with the auto shift in manual mode, particularly useful when you need engine braking for steep descents. An embarrassing moment for the E-class was up on Khardung la, where it just wouldn’t pick up revs and kept stalling. Back in the foothills after Manali, the E-class felt more at home and the 800 had a hard time keeping up. Speeds of 140-150kph were effortlessly attained on any half-decent stretch and on the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway, we touched the magic 200kph mark.

Every 20 or so kilometres we would park on the side and patiently wait for the 800 to catch up. The gap between the two cars would have been even greater, were it not for the traffic and road conditions which in India is the biggest equaliser.

Reliability? Not even a puncture. The E-class ran the whole distance without a hiccup. Well, almost. Just before Bangalore, the engine began to vibrate like a truck —  one of the hydraulic engine mounts had failed. It wasn’t such a serious problem that needed fixing immediately so we carried on to the Cape. The mount was finally replaced in Bangalore, on the drive back home. Until then we rued the uncharacteristic shudders that flowed out of the engine bay.

Fuel consumption is not the strong point of this big V6 and less so with the auto transmission. We averaged 8.4kpl which cost us a hefty Rs 15,457 in fuel for the entire route.

Jumping into the Maruti 800 from the big Benz was a shock to the system. It takes a while getting used to the little car’s bare and cramped confines after being pampered in the E-class’s grand interiors. The first thing that hits you is noise. The mechanical clatter from the 800’s engine, the clunks from the suspension, and the odd rattle from the seats. But the biggest difference is in the ride. You simply can’t believe you’re driving on the same surface when you switch cars. The 800 was painfully bumpy on the undulating and uneven roads in Ladakh and Madhya Pradesh and its rudimentary ride turned out to be its weakest point. The brakes, though boosted, are pretty poor as well and we wisely maintained a large distance between the Benz and the the 800 so that there was enough time to stop when the Benz suddenly braked to avoid the omnipresent potholes. 

But the truth is that the 800 impressed us more than the E-class. You always expect the Merc to be nothing but the best, so anything less is always a disappointment. The 800 on the other hand amazed us with its performance, economy and reliability. It never gave up even on the highest road in the world, zipping to the summit in mostly second gear. Remember that this car has only 46bhp and loses nearly half of it in the oxygen-starved heights we took it to. And it was here that the Merc and not the Maruti struggled. The 800 leapt across rough and broken roads with the agility of a gazelle, the short overhangs and decent ground clearance proving a boon in these conditions.

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Sheep graze in the More plains. The ten kilometre run across this plateau is the only straight and flat section on the 486km Leh-Manali road.

Compared to the Merc, the 800 felt like a toy. We could take it for granted, handle it without kid gloves and not worry about what to do if something went wrong. On the gruelling Leh-Manali road, it was the Merc which couldn’t keep up!  On open stretches the roles were naturally reversed with the 800 falling behind the Merc as pushing beyond 120kph was risky. Only once, on the fabulous Nagpur-Hyderabad stretch, did the speedo needle touch 135kph.

The 800’s fuel efficiency was astounding. However hard we tried, we couldn’t get a  figure below 12.2kpl. For most of the way, the 800 averaged 16.2kpl with a best of 22.2kpl leaving us in no doubt that this is the most fuel-efficient car in the country.

The 800 needed more maintenance than the Merc, partly because it took more of a beating. At a service stop in Manali, the windscreen washer pipes had cracked as  the water inside froze in Ladakh’s sub-zero temperatures. An axle boot was cut, possibly by a sharp rock . Two wheel rims, bent out of shape, were replaced in Delhi. Thereafter the 800 required no attention at all. However, we had to keep an eye on the wheel rims which kept bending like cardboard every time we were caught unawares by a rough patch.

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Mighty E and humble 800 took K2K in their stride, without a hiccup.

All said and done both cars served their purpose — they got us across India,  from Kargil to Kanyakumari, albeit one in a lot more style than the other.

Up Close and Personal 

Roads and drivers from K2K

K2K threw at us varied roads, from dirt tracks to smooth double-laned highways, but we drove them all. Here is an analysis of roads (and the kind of drivers) found on our run through the sub-continent.

The chosen route was one that would allow us to travel from the North to the South in more or less a straight line. From Kargil, we travelled to Leh and there on to Manali. We drove NH 21 from Manli to Chandigarh and NH 1 to Delhi. We drove the wide NH 2 to Agra and the narrow NH 3 to Gwalior. From Gwalior to Jhansi we took the newly named NH 75 and the horrible NH 26 to Lakhnadon. From thereon it was the NH 7 right through to Kanyakumari.

Kargil to Chandigarh

The high-altitude roads here have a humbling effect on everyone and the most gentlemanly drivers in India have to be those behind the wheel of the trucks between Kargil and Manali. They give way immediately, show proper signals and, above all, are very considerate, even though the harsh land is not very considerate towards them. Army convoys expect right of way and it’s best to give them that. The Kargil-Leh road is well-maintained, as this is the only road linking Ladakh to Jammu & Kashmir. There are odd sections around corners where the roads are broken, but there aren’t any dirt tracks.

From Leh onwards to Keylong lie unpredictable roads. So much so that the very bad stretches you may have found while coming up might have been repaired when you return four days later. On our drive we faced 20km of dirt roads before the Taglangla Pass, 12km after Pang and 18km between Sarchu and Patseo. There are sections of broken roads, which needed careful negotiation.  Manali onwards, the road is narrow before going through Kullu, where it narrows down terribly. The run from Mandi to Bilaspur has wider roads but plenty of blind corners. Truck drivers are the decent sort, the bus drivers can be tolerable, but the private car drivers are unpredictable. However, they all follow one universal rule — around corners always stick to the left.

Chandigarh to Delhi

This road breeds hooliganism. The first 50km till Ambala, which is a single carriageway, is the worst with vehicles zipping like maniacs. Private taxis, buses and cars can be seen overtaking vehicles that are overtaking, relying more on somebody else’s brakes rather than their own. After Ambala it’s a double carriageway all the way to Delhi but there are plenty of trucks, buses and motorcyclists coming the wrong way. This high-speed road is notorious for spectacular crashes.

Delhi to Gwalior

The 207km double carriageway highway from Delhi to the outskirts of Agra is the last long four-lane highway on the route. The traffic is quite orderly except for the odd cow.  Agra city, however, has unruly traffic. The double carriageway ends 10km from Agra towards Gwalior. As soon as you enter Madhya Pradesh the roads start deteriorating.

Gwalior to Nagpur

The 74km stretch from Gwalior to Jhansi is fine. It’s after Lalitpur, 92km from Jhansi, that your sorrow starts. The entire 110km tarmac stretch from Lalitpur to Sagar has patches of missing tar or uneven patch-up work, which gives a very bumpy ride. From Sagar to Lakhnadon, it’s 215km of complete jolting misery. It’s unbelievable that this is a national highway. Lakhnadon to Nagpur (NH 7) is a breeze with smooth, tarred roads.

Nagpur to Kanyakumari

NH 7 to Hyderabad is a pleasure to drive on with well-behaved traffic and wide roads. The double carriageway ends 8km from Nagpur.

It was the road from Hyderabad to Bangalore that was the most memorable. Flat fields bordering the roads don’t hide anything that could jump onto the road suddenly, and the absence of villages along the highway allows high speeds. It was on this road that the Merc touched 200kph. The souring factor is that as you get closer to Bangalore, traffic congestion increases with huge luxury buses speeding recklessly.

Here too the last 23km into Bangalore is a double carriageway. Out of Bangalore, towards Kanyakumari, the road is a double carriageway till Hosur, but sections of these were closed for repair work From Krishnagiri to Dharmapuri it is miserably potholed. The potholes come up suddenly and can harm the wheels if hit at high speeds. Traffic from Dharmapuri to Salem is smooth flowing.

Salem onwards the highway starts to feel more congested. There are larger than life posters in little villages, bazaars on the road and loads of two-wheeler traffic. The milestones are misleading with some of them showing increasing distances as you near your destination. The roads are well maintained and single carriageway all through till the end.

There is a bypass for Madurai, 212km from Salem but it is not clearly marked. The 228km run from Madurai to Kanyakumari has good roads but they are all single carriageway and criss-crossed with junctions. Paddy fields line the roads and traffic here comprises local buses, overcrowded Jeeps and autorickshaws. What’s surprising is the speeds private taxi drivers can push their old Ambassadors to.

Fast Facts from K2K

Highest roads travelled

Khardung La at 5602m

Taglang La at 5328m

Dirt roads

50km in between Leh and Manali

34km between Sagar and Lakhnadon

Double carriage way

208km Ambala to Delhi, 207km Delhi to Agra, 10km out of Nagpur towards Hyderabad and 26km before Bangalore.

Highest speeds

200kph in the Mercedes-Benz E240 and 130kph in the Maruti 800 on the Hyderabad-Bangalore Highway.

Lowest temperature experienced

-11.5C at Patseo

Highest temperature experienced

38.2C at Madurai

Highest average speed

59kph (Kurnool-AP/Karnataka border)

Lowest average speed

21kph (Taglang La-Pang)

Homing in with the GPS

The Magellan 4000 GPS (Global Positioning System) that we had along on the trip proved helpful in giving us constant readings of our exact latitude and longitude as well as altitude.

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Magellan 4000 GPS.

GPS units communicate with any of the 24 GPS satellites orbiting the earth to process data and provide the desired information. While two satellites are enough to give one an accurate reading of the latitude and longitude, it takes four satellites or more to give the exact elevation reading. This can prove to be a problem in the mountains where the twisty roads constantly make the GPS unit lose the ‘line of vision’ with the sky and thereby losing ‘sight’ of the satellite. But give it a clear stretch of road and the GPS is quick to lock on to the available satellites and give you a location fix.

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Down with the tube

We have to admit that we were a shade apprehensive about running both cars on tubeless tyres for the entire K2K distance. With no puncture repair facilities for over 400km on the desolate Leh-Manali road for conventional tubed tyres, leave alone a tubeless one, the thought of getting stranded on a high mountain pass with more than one flat, did cross our minds. But contrary to the general perception, a simple puncture is easier to repair in a tubeless tyre. All you need is a small repair kit and basic tools to ‘plug’ the leak. It’s when the puncture is more serious like a long and deep gash in the sidewall that you could have a problem. So we carried two spares per car, just in case.

Tubeless tyres offer better comfort, handling and safety than tubed tyres which are now considered obsolete in developed markets. The worry is that our atrocious road conditions bend wheel rims and result in a flat. Hence, the widespread thinking is that tubeless tyres are not suitable for India. We wanted to prove the theory wrong by using only tubeless tyres on K2K. If we could manage driving from one corner of the sub-continent to the other, then tubeless tyres should work fine.

The E-class comes fitted with Goodyear Eagle tubeless tyres as standard. Mercedes, intent on not compromising the dynamic integrity of its cars, is the only Indian manufacturer to choose the tubeless route.

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K2K team takes a respite with the Goodyear dealer, Faridabad.

Thankfully, we didn’t have a single puncture on the entire route, which must be a record of sorts. Though there were no apparent leaks, we found that the tyres lost about 2psi of inflation pressure every 600-700km. We found it best to run the tyres 3psi more than recommended pressure. Though this made the ride slightly firmer, the Merc coped better on rough roads. The right rear tyre picked up a gash in the sidewall but it was not deep enough to cause concern and we ran that tyre till the end.

On the Maruti 800, the tyres played a more critical role. We fitted on 155/70 R12 Goodyear GPS2 tubeless radials, which made the ride perceptibly softer and quieter. In addition, grip felt higher and the braking a touch better.

We picked up our first puncture in Delhi, the result of a nail which ripped through the tyre carcass. The only repair alternative was to fit a tube in it. This tyre remained as the spare. As a precaution we increased tyre  pressures by 4psi over recommended, to minimise sidewall deflection and hence the possibility of a puncture.

The drive from Bangalore to Salem gave us our second puncture. Hitting an unseen pothole at high speed, the rim buckled and the tyre immediately deflated as the air escaped between the tyre bead and the rim. Should we just pop in a tube and carry on? The roadside ‘puncture-wallah’ had other ideas — he simply banged the rim somewhat back into shape. With the tyre bead now sitting tightly on the rim flange, he simply inflated the tyre and we were ready to roll. We ran this temporarily fixed tyre/rim for the rest of the journey to see if it would hold up. It has not leaked since.

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Damaged rim of Maruti 800 was hammered back into shape.

The Merc proved that tubeless tyres work just fine on any terrain and in any part of the country. On small-wheeled cars like the 800, rim damage and hence the chance of flats is more of a concern. However, as we found out, you’re never stranded in the middle of with no tubeless repair facilities. If it can’t be fixed with your own handy repair kit or by straightening the rim, you can always pop in a tube to get home.

This story was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Autocar India.

Copyright (c) Autocar India. All rights reserved.


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