Plain sailing in the Etios
Character actors are hardly ever known for their good looks. They are lauded for the skills that make an actor, an actor. The Etios is like that. Its looks aren't going to turn heads, but in every single other area you can think of, this is a smashingly good car. And now that I have driven the car nearly 450km at a stretch, I can say that with more confidence - no small feat given how impressive the car proved at our track test. And don't take my word for it, Karun Chandhok and Gaurav Gill agreed with me on this. Maybe that should be, I agreed with them...
We left Delhi at 5am and were well into UP by the time the sun came out and joined the party. And it didn't have it all its way, persistent but intermittent fog dogged our steps until we stopped for breakfast. Thankfully, you don't need signs to know that you have reached Mathura. You first see the Super Krishna Apartments and then Ultra Radha Housing coming up on the outskirts and you just know you're in the holy town. We grabbed a mac or two near the refinery and then we were on the road again.
The road had been a bit chaotic but during the foggy bits, our slower speeds brought home that fact that driven normally - all testers tend to go a bit quicker using more of the engine than most other drivers - the Etios is a remarkably quiet car with a gutsy but effortless petrol under its hood. So much torque is delivered so easily that you almost never look for a gearshift to overtake.
This oasis of peace is very welcome when you're dealing with traffic coming at you, trying to t-bone you at every possible intersection. Which seems to be the mark of UP.
We planned to cross an immense swathe of UP on the first day, hitting up Allahabad for the night, a nearly 700km day trip. It can be trying to cover such a distance with this perpetual chaos but an effortless car goes a long way and that the Etios does rather well. Like the engine, ride quality is another strength that held up well on the few broken stretches as well as on the rutted sections.
The latter would haunt us clear across Bihar forcing the Etios to absorb a remarkable pounding while I pushed it to try and reach everywhere earlier than planned, never easy when a TV camera person in the car perpetually wants you to slow down for a shot, stop for a shot or go back for a shot.
We rolled into Allahabad in the dark, having fought the final 30km of two-lane highway - the G-Quad passes the city at a distance. The hour and a half it took us to find our way to Sardar Patel Road (shopping and hotel central) made us appreciate all the four-lane cruising we'd not given a second thought to in the past 12-odd hours.
Thank the lord for GPS on the phone. My Mobile Maps app led us with nary a wrong turn and Yatrik Niwas turned out to be a super-hospitable hotel to spend a few hours in bed - obsessive that I am, I'd planned another 5am start.
I loaded the bags into the Etios' boot six times until the camera man was happy and then we crossed some pretty broken, or under construction (same difference) roads back out to the highway. Back on the two-lane, a gorgeous highway sunrise waited for us. Having taken the requisite pictures, we were humming along smoothly again.
No one noticed this right till the end, but the Etios cabin is spacious and comfortable over long stints to the point where you take the car for granted. No one commented on how well-ensconced they were - but no one complained of the usual - minor backaches, stop-to-stretch kind of thing that interrupts long highway stints either. That's how good the cabin is. The AC vents on their own deserve a full paragraph. I didn't realise how multi-functional they were until Gaurav turned them just so, wedged a melted chocolate bar horizontally between them and cooled them off. I could have mentioned to him the spacious, cooled glove box but this was far more amusing to watch.
Outside, the miles flew by. We stopped at a toll booth outside Varanasi and had our first negotiated toll encounter. The chap, in effect, insisted that I not take a receipt so he could 'feed his kids.' And was most cut up when I insisted on it. Which, I guess is marginally better than the chap in Bihar, a couple of hundred clicks down the road, who wanted to know how much we were willing to pay in exchange for not taking a receipt.
We crossed from UP to Bihar and the highway went south. Not literally, of course, but in every other sense. The ruts were deeper and would last all the way across the state. Truck traffic thickened and many refused to move from the top lane since the ruts on the outer lanes were deeper. We used the ride quality and handling of the Etios to great effect, slicing through the entire state without a single stop. The car was returning a steady 13+kmpl all along so a tankful seemed to last a fair bit. We were also apprehensive of the highway in Bihar thanks to legends of dacoities and so forth. We were reassured by the breakfast dhaba guy who said that was back when the highway was slow and there were a lot more trees to offer hiding places to the bandits.
We were headed for Dhanbad on the second day and as soon as we crossed into Jharkhand, the mood was on the up and up. The border crossing is a non-event, but the concrete highway that follows is AWESOME. It's flat, well-marked and terrifically well-built. And while the previous miles were covered on the Gangetic plain, Jharkhand is all rolling hillocks. The NH2 transforms from a tripwire to a sinuous snake. Not coiled up, just bendy enough to keep you interested and the speed high. Traffic grew light, landscapes with epic horizons showed up and it became a thrilling final few hours before we parked up in Dhanbad. Such was the contrast that Gaurav quipped that the UP-Bihar Governments had inadvertently ordered the construction of two two-lane highways that ran parallel and next to each other instead of a four-lane divided highway. Which isn't to say that Jharkhand does not have its share of people coming the wrong way at you. But great highway quality allows you more time to react.
Dhanbad started out as a hill station kind of place, right off the G-Quad and full of windy roads, but without the sheer drops of Mussoorie or Shimla. Then it degenerated into a warren of narrow streets and we quickly discovered that great hotels in the town would pass for decent at best in most other places. We made do and left at a relatively late 7am the next day - Kolkata was just 300km away after all.
And what a 300km. We crossed the border into West Bengal soon after we left and traffic, highway, it all collapsed into a chaotic mess. WB-registered vehicles appeared to have the manners of a malevolent mister Bean, with all the klutziness now purposed into a tool to obstruct other traffic.
We had a good breakfast at Durgapur, not realising that we would shortly encounter two things we hadn't in the last 1300-odd km. We got back on the road and stopped at the first of many traffic lights. Yes, right on the NH2. We really wanted to pass by Durgapur, but there isn't a bypass. We crawled through the traffic - which the Etios handles easily in as high a gear as third and fourth thanks to its torque. Then we hit a massive, massive jam. A cheerful truckie said he'd been installed in his current spot for the past four hours and that he'd spotted the jam going the other way a full four hours earlier.
Off-road time! I took the Etios off-road as a coping mechanism of sorts. At first I proceeded gingerly - Halley had to complete the entire East coast in the car after all. Then, despite the undulating soft shoulder, some rather worrying traverse angles, I grew confident enough to zing by stuck traffic until I discovered the cause of
the jam. There's a forgotten little hamlet after Durgapur where the highway is still a two-lane. Whose name, unfortunately, I didn't catch.
This hamlet is the purgatory for the trucks. They were everywhere on both sides of the road. Old Bedfords collapsing slowly under the weight of the accumulated dust, and time. An old fire engine stood amidst all the rust, a care-worn, red flash in the middle of mechanical carnage. I'd love to return here for a while, sit in that engine, ring that bell for a final time before the dust consumes it.
The jam finally eased once we crossed a still-two-lane railway bridge and shortly we were on the Durgapur Expressway. A four-lane tarmac road that's plenty quick.
Entering Kolkata was worrying me. What would Jammed City have in store. For all the low-down torque, the refinement, the comfort and ability of the Etios, no one wants to be stuck in a jam, right?
The GPS guided us on to a bumpy, road optimistically billed Belgharia Expressway, allowing us to thud around the heart of West Bengal's careworn, always threadbare capital and out towards our hotel.
We gave the car a thorough wash and check-up at the Toyota dealer as a sort of goodbye and then waded back into Kolkata's traffic to get back to the hotel.
When we parked up for the night, we had spent just over 30 hours in the Etios over three days. In that time, a road had shown us four states of our great country. Is what you see of the highway a good sign of what the state is up to? Say, economically? Perhaps. I can say this. UP takes forever to get across, but looks lush, fertile and aggro-agrarian, Bihar feels more industrial, but you somehow, don't want to linger, maybe it's just past stories taking time to fade away. Jharkhand seems a little more in a hurry to get developed, and the roads we drove say they know what they're up to. Which leaves us with West Bengal, which seems to approach progress and development with a studied, stubborn resistance.
On to happier thoughts, then. The Etios was a great companion. It had manfully returned more than 13.5kmpl through the entire stretch, isolated nearly 800+km of ruts, used its ABS to protect us from a cow, a kid playing cricket and a tractor about to pull a U-turn in the middle of an expressway. It cooled us when the outside boiled and warmed us when the remarkably few corners on this stretch did present themselves. And it had done all this without effort. If that isn't character, I don't know what is. And the Etios was just being itself, not acting. And now, over to Halley to finish the Yatra.
Sandeep and I took over the wheel in Kolkata for the fourth and final leg of the Etios Yatra. After a long and tiring flight from Mumbai, we decided to call it a day and got some well deserved shut-eye. We were up early in the morning and headed out of Kolkata by 5. A combination of Shumi's directions, the iPad's GPS and a Garmin GPS got us out of the city and straight to NH5. The dual carriageway was smooth and empty and the Etios glided its way through, the roads were arrow straight until we reached Kharagpur to take NH60. This section of the G-Quad was still being completed and had a few diversions but the Etios easily managed to go through some bad sections.
Soon we were back on the smooth highway and it was time to listen to some good music. Even after being reminded by Shumi, we had forgotten to carry an aux cable. Thankfully, Martin had left behind his audio CDs that kept us going. We made good progress and were averaging 80kmph before stopping for photography and video shoots and a coffee break.
Sandeep, all of six feet and eight inches, had no complaints and was very comfortable at the driver's seat. NH60 wasn't crowded and we hardly noticed any passenger vehicles. We meanwhile were covering good distance and turned onto the NH5 after crossing over into Orissa. We had decided to call it a day at Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa and hence made our hotel reservation while stopping for brunch at a roadside dhaba. The simple roti and dal meal was filling and felt refreshing. I finally took over from Sandeep and was back driving the Etios after a long time. After only driving the car on a racetrack during the OVERDRIVE awards jury round, the Etios was equally impressive on the highway as well. The dynamics of the car have been well tuned for our conditions and the quick and eager engine is not only good for spirited driving but also capable of effortlessly cruising at triple digit speeds. The flat bottomed leather wrapped steering wheel looks like it came straight out of a Toyota race car and offers great grip.
Even after regular breaks for photography and video shoots, we managed to cover more than 450km and reached Bhubaneswar for lunch. The drive was effortless and if it wasn't for us pre-booking our hotel rooms, we could have actually gone further ahead. However, because I wasn't going to be driving for the day, I stuffed myself and hit the bed. Later in the evening we walked around in Bhubaneswar and tried some local cuisine for dinner. Back in the hotel, we planned to drive more on day two as one can cover a lot of miles on the G-Quad.
We were up and ready early at 6 and headed out to NH5. Several sections of the highway are still being built and hence we had to take diversions into smaller single carriage roads through villages and even cross a railway line. This section of the G-Quad is probably one of the very few which aren't complete yet. We managed to cover 135km and decided to take a break at the famous Chilka Lake, the largest coastal lagoon in India and second largest in the world. After breakfast we left and were back on the G-Quad heading towards Andhra Pradesh. We crossed borders by noon and one could easily see the change as we entered South India. The highway got better and this was easily the best stretch I have ever driven on in the country. The average speed we were doing was about 70kmph despite regular breaks. The Etios was comfortably covering distances and was returning around 14kmpl even at high speeds with the air conditioner on.
We continued driving and the lovely stretch ensured we covered 500km in just eight hours to reach Vishakhapatnam in time for lunch. We treated ourselves to some delicious Andhra food that included one of the best mutton biryanis I have ever tasted and the famous 'Chicken 65' that was out of this world. After the great meal, we decided to keep driving as we had some more time until the sun set. We drove for another 200km and halted at Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh. After some welcome shuteye, we were on our way to Chennai on day three of the final leg. Chennai was 600km away but we were still enjoying Andhra's lovely G-Quad stretch. About 150km into our journey, we stopped for some lip-smacking South Indian breakfast of dosa and poori. Sandeep and I, being from the south enjoyed every single bite. The weather was getting hot as we approached Chennai and the Etios glovebox with its unique air con vent that can be re-routed to chill a bottle came in very handy. The G-Quad got even better and at times was a 6-lane highway.
Crossing states on the G-Quad is not very noticeable as the highway looks more or less similar. Our average speeds were going up and the mile munching got better. We reached the outskirts of Chennai before the sun came down and for the first time in the yatra encountered a traffic jam. We were lucky not to go into the city and instead took the bypass to Sriperumbudur, home to India's racetrack. The MMRT track was where the Etios impressed our jury members and eventually came out on top to win the OVERDRIVE Car Of The Year award. We found a hotel next to the racetrack and close to the Bangalore highway, the NH46.
The next day we left for Bangalore, Toyota's home town and the city where the Etios Yatra would end. With just 300km to go, we decided to leave a little later in the morning. NH46 is a dual carriageway and the road is definitely one of the best in the country. Within no time we covered more than half the distance and decided to stop in a town called Ambur. I have driven across Bangalore and Chennai quite a few times and have stopped at Ambur for the super biryani and leather products. We spent more than hour shopping. The Etios boot easily swallowed in the extra luggage.
With just 160km to go, the Etios effortlessly covered the distance and we were soon crossing over into Karnataka and Bangalore. The city boasts the second longest flyover to get directly into the city which saved us a lot of time. We were to end the yatra at the Toyota dealership in Bangalore that was in the other end of the city. The perfect dimensions of the Etios helped in squeezing through heavy traffic in rush hour. After driving for more than an hour across the city we reached the Ravindu Toyota dealership where the Etios Yatra ended.
Over four days. we covered a total of 2085km from Kolkata to Bangalore which took us through four states. Team OVERDRIVE together covered a total distance of 6372km in 11 days, driving from Bangalore-Mumbai-Delhi-Kolkata-Chennai and back to Bangalore. The Etios performed incredibly well after going around the country. The car was driven at high speeds almost continuously. The Golden Quadrilateral is a project that connects India and is the sign of a great future. Even after driving almost 500km a day, the straight and smooth roads combined with the comfort the Etios offers ensured we remained fresh. We loved it on the track, it's great in the city and now after a successful 12-day drive on the G-Quad, the Etios has proved its credentials.
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