The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 16, 2001

The thrill of cruising along the national highway

In spite of every type of road and driving condition, the drive from Irrungattakottai in Tamil Nadu to Mumbai was not exhausting, says H. Kishie Singh as he covers the long haul of 1,100 km.

WE were travelling from Chennai to Bangalore and on to Mumbai. It was a long journey, though it didn’t seem so.

We were hard-pressed for time, and were driving on some of the better national highways in India, and it was quite an experience. The drive started at Irrungattakottai, a place that has become well-known more on account of the presence of a factory that makes the car that we were travelling in than for anything else.

Actually, the ride was to be the acid-test of the comfort that a luxury car could give to a stressed-out executive. We were testing the latest offering from Hyundai, which has, so to say, graduated from the Santro and Accent, to the Sonata. A quick visit to the factory showed immaculate floors where the car was made and we were soon headed out for Bangalore on NH4. We started off in some sort of order but soon got separated in the heavy traffic.

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Toll booths are a regular feature on the new N H 4
Toll booths are a regular feature on the new N H 4

A fellow auto-journalist, Raj had taken the first stint at the wheel and a good thing too it was he was knew the route. The lovely signs in the jalebi script are no help to the motorists like me who are from out of the region.

Being a passenger has its own charm. I admired the verdant fields, the countryside and the willowy clouds that wafted into the blue sky. Inside the car, I could appreciate the leather upholstery, the carpets and the fully automatic air conditioner and listen to the music system with six speakers and eight CD changers. Numerous cubbyholes take care of spectacles and odds and ends that make driving easier. A bottle and cup holder, arm rests and power outlet make it comfortable.The unseen things are an air-bag, collapsible steering, ABS (anti-lock breaking system and TCS (traction control system).

As we cruised along the NH 4 highway, there was not a whisper other than the gentle hum of the AC. The engine is hydraulically mounted and this eliminates vibration. The latest Sonata is a sixth generation derivative and is the best-selling car in Korea.

At Chittor, we took the byepass and I got to drive the car. The driver’s seat has a wide range of comfortable positions. The tilt steering adds to the comfort. The aim of all this is to prevent fatigue, because lack of fatigue means comfort.

The Chittor byepass is a toll road, very new, smoothly carpeted and a joy to drive on. The kilometres were devoured with the same relish and ease as chicken tikkas at a cocktail party!

We were in Bangalore by 6 pm. Bangalore was a pleasant respite — the only one that we got on this whirlwind trip. We headed towards the Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore. It was modelled on the pattern of the Queen’s Country Estate, Windsor Castle in England and built in 1987 by Chamaraja Wodeyar.

Originally, it covered an area over 200 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and forest. Now, the setting has shrunk and the untidy gardens are a mute witness to its decay.

The palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, Bangalore
The palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, Bangalore.

As we came out of the building, there was a break in the clouds and the sun had shown a weak face. Everyone rushed to their cars and cameras to make the most of this brief photo-opportunity.

We had an early dinner because the next day was a long one. The drive from Chennai to Bangalore had been 400 km plus and the following day it would be almost thrice that distance.

By 5.30 am, everyone had assembled in the porch. Food boxes, drinking water, snacks, and chocolates were loaded. After being washed, cleaned and refuelled the car waited silently to roar off into the dawn. But Sonatas don’t roar, they snarl silently away!

We got on to the new NH 4 — a few km out of Bangalore. The signboard read: Mumbai 992 km. By this time it was 7 a.m.

On the Bangalore-Mumbai drive, Kim, the PDI engineer was our passenger. This gave me the opportunity to sit in the back-seat. A well-padded leather seat, an armrest, plenty of legroom even for my long legs. I felt important and to complete the picture I browsed through a financial paper. There is enough space in the back seat to easily turn the pages of a newspaper!

Just before Hubli, we regrouped and refuelled and changed drivers. I drove with Raj in the rear and Kim in the passenger seat. We by passed Hubli and took another brand-new toll road. The NH 4 from Chennai took us to Mumbai. In most parts, the road is new and of NH 1 quality. A part of the North-South-East-West network, the South seems to ahead of us. Good roads seemed to have finally arrived in India!

As we left the by pass the signboard said: Mumbai 650 km. Travelling on the by pass for Belgaum is a beautiful drive. The road is lined with ancient borh trees which are humongous with numerous roots hanging down from the branches that were 30 metres and more in the air.

When we reached Kohlapur, we had covered 630 km from Bangalore. Lunch included Kohlapuri mutton, a speciality of the place I was told. For me Kohlapur meant Chappals and Padmini (the actress, not the car!).

Late evening we were in Satara and Mumbai was still 274 km away. At Katraj, we took the Balewadi by pass which is a ring-road around Pune. It is the best worst road because it is broken, uneven and has water filled potholes. It was a torture test for the suspension and the steering. The car bottomed a couple of times and I had to crawl over this 25 km stretch.

We left Pune behind and entered the Pune-Mumbai Expressway. It was just getting dark and we had 131 km to go before reaching Mumbai.

As we came down the Khandala ghats there were wrong sign posting, pouring rain and no streetlights. There was much consternation in the car as I found myself in the incoming traffic lane. A quick U-turn, a sigh of relief and we continued down the ghats.

Driving down the ghats it was monsoon magic time, what with the ghats on one side end the Arabian Sea on the other. The heavens opened up and it was a rain-soaked night — the likes of which I had not experienced for a long time. Raindrops caught in the headlights were like tracer bullets aimed at us.

I had very much looked forward to the joy of driving on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway the best road in India. It was not to be. It was pitch at dark and raining cats and dogs so naturally our speed has reduced to a crawl. The conditions of the road were obnoxious. The visibility was nil and if all this was not enough, we were stuck in a traffic jam!

The 130-km stretch that should have been covered in record time took almost four hours!

It was nearly midnight when we pulled at our hotel. We were not really tired in spite of every type of road and driving condition we encountered that day. From hotel to hotel it was 1,100 km which is a long haul in India. Our roads have improved and so have the cars.


This feature was published on September 9, 2001