Every year even as the festive season peaks Hyundai Motor India’s unique annual event ‘The Great India Drive’ is something informative and fun to look forward to. Into its seventh edition for 2023, the GID has been flagged off from some of the most scenic, authentic and historic locations around the country and the drive itself has been through some of the most iconic Indian routes. The quintessential ingredients of an epic road trip have helped GID create some lasting memories. Last year’s edition GID 2022 was a trip from Srinagar to Kargil and back via the dizzying Zojila pass in the upper Himalayas. The frozen, rarified atmosphere of Zojila offering a spectacular backdrop during the drive in the Hyundai Tucson. Can an epic drive like that one be topped? So, what did we drive during GID 2023 and where did we head to?
Hyundai India has chosen the one key vehicle model line that was launched by the brand during each year to capture the essence of that edition of the Great India Drive. It was the Tucson that proved to be the trusted mule for GID 2022 with its tall mid-sized sports utility stance and sure-footed four-wheel drive prowess coming in handy while negotiating some of the treacherous black ice sections on the Zojila pass highway. This year’s edition was helmed by the new Hyundai Exter, the latest addition to the company’s portfolio, and one which is attempting to target buyers looking for an affordable vehicle with the advantages of the SUV body style. The Exter is built on the same platform as the Grand i10 Nios and gets the advantages of competitive pricing that the architecture offers.
The drive plan is, of course, also the highlight of every GID and often leads out of or into historic venues and this year’s edition was one of the best yet. The route plan was involved heading out from Coimbatore and driving straight into the Tiger’s lair at Bandipur Tiger Reserve after climbing over and crossing Ooty, famous Hill station of Tamil Nadu. The theme of the year’s GID was defined by Project Tiger, a conservation movement for the big cat which is celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year. This extremely significant conservation effort has brought the Royal Bengal Tiger (the Indian tiger basically) from the brink of extinction.
Started in 1973, and officially launched by the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, Project Tiger was a clarion call to protect Indian wildlife and particularly the Bengal Tiger which was dwindling in numbers due to habitat destruction and poaching. By 1973, the tiger census indicated that over a century before, the population of tigers had plummeted from about 40,000 to only about 1,411. And much of that fall had come from human settlements encroaching into tiger territory and a shockingly flourishing illegal trade in tiger skin and body parts. Poaching had decimated much of the tiger population in many of the small number of tiger reserves that were present during the middle of the 20th century. Project Tiger’s main aims were to reduce and stop the depletion of tiger habitats and to sustain a viable tiger population. And over the next 50 years, Project Tiger has not only managed to increase the number of tiger reserves multi-fold, it has also managed to nearly triple the number of tigers in the wild. The project has had its ups and downs and there were years when the success of the conservation movement was in doubt. But, sustained efforts, fine tuning the strategy to counter poaching and corrections midway have helped the tiger leap back up with strong numbers.
Project Tiger is in many ways a trendsetting initiative that has inspired many other conservation movements, because the success of tiger tourism was expected to be the toughest challenge in wildlife conservation. The official figure for the number of tigers in the wild had climbed up to 2,967 and it is expected to be well over 3,000 by now, with Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka being neck-to-neck in their tiger population. Today there are more than 55 tiger reserves spread all over the country, including one in Rajasthan. These pockets of diverse protected habitats are a testament to the resilience of the tiger and its ability to adapt to different climates and vegetation zones.
While recognising the immense contribution made by the conservationists and government support that has helped the tiger make its return to our wilderness, Hyundai’s messaging on the drive was meant to point towards the diverse capabilities of the Exter. I started out on the drive behind the wheel of a manual transmission variant of the Exter. At 3.8 metres in length, this is one of the smallest sub-compact SUVs in the market, and yet it does feel quite roomy in the cabin. With the market so skewed in favour of the SUV body style, it has become imperative for car makers to offer alternatives for SUV buyers at every price point. And it is only a matter of time before the urban sub-compact SUV becomes ubiquitous in our cities. The Exter’s USP is that it delivers the impact of a SUV effortlessly even though it is built on a hatchback platform.
Heading out of Coimbatore and negotiating the thick morning traffic through some of the suburbs is easy work for the Exter thanks to its short footprint and light steering. The road widens into National Highway 948 and then onto state highway 80 to Mettupalayam and Coonoor. The climb towards Ooty from there on becomes quite challenging with multiple hairpin bends and winding ghat sections. If there were any doubts about the Exter’s capabilities in handling the gradients in some of the sections, they were demolished by it summarily. Even though it is not exactly a sporty, over-eager powertrain, the 1.2-litre Kappa petrol engine is still fairly tractable and quick when needed. The 1,197cc, 4-cylinder engine delivers 83PS of peak power and 113.8Nm of max torque, and since much of that torque is sent to the wheels only from about 2,500rpm, the engine does tend to strain a bit initially, but pulls clean once it crosses that mark. The gearbox offers clean shifts and the clutch is light but progressive enough. Some of the ghat sections and parts of the road leading down from Ooty were under construction and the copious amounts of rainfall that the western ghats had received over the last two months meant that the tarmac had taken a pounding and wasn’t exactly clean. The Exter manages to handle much of what is thrown at it, though with the 15-inch alloys, it does tend to crash through some of the big potholes and broken tarmac en route. After skirting around the fringes of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and spotting a few wild elephants and multiple herds of Chital or spotted dear, I head down towards Bandipur across the border into Karnataka.
Even though personally I’m not a fan of widespread wildlife tourism, it is always exciting to be in the middle of tiger country. The Bandipur tiger reserve, along with Mudumalai and Wayanad sits in the intersection of three states - Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is more than 900 square kms in size and is considered one of the most biodiverse regions of the country. Spotting the elusive big is always a challenge, but just to be able to spot a myriad other wildlife was so exciting. And eventually, the take away from every trip into the forest is a reminder about how fragile the ecosystem is and how important it is to protect the apex predator of the forest because of the trickle-down effect for all the rest of the forest dwellers. And on this occasion, the memories of my time in the forest were also etched with the Hyundai Exter in the frame.