Challenge, Accepted!
evo India|May 2019

It’s ten years of the Polo in India. We’ve raced it, we’ve rallied it, we’ve done the commute and weekend drives. We’ve lived with it, owned it, and still love it. Now for the ultimate challenge

Sirish Chandran

“IMPOSSIBLE!”

“C’mon man, it can’t be impossible.”

“This is impossible!”

“Really?”

“Yes, Sirish! It won’t go! It’s so steep! It’s so narrow! It’s so dangerous!”

“Umm… but won’t it make for a good story?”

“What’s wrong with you???”

Oh shit, have I bitten off more than I can chew?

Let’s take a step back. Ten steps actually. This is the tenth year of the Polo in India. I still remember the hype leading up to the launch of the small Volkswagen. There were those road-block newspaper ads, the talking paper, the inauguration of the vast plant in Pune, the non-stop stream of press events leading up to the price announcement. And then there was the media drive itself, a sea of red Polos spilling out of the parking lot of the Taj in Bandra — to date, a manufacturer hasn’t laid out such a vast fleet on a media launch. It really was something else.

And it was ages ago. I was much younger. I edited another magazine. Social media wasn’t the many-headed monster that it is today. And after discovering India is an altogether different kettle of fish, VW has hit the reset button. In the intervening period, Volkswagen also transformed the motorsport landscape of our country by launching the first professionally managed and organized single-make racing series. A few years later the TDI engines of the Polo Cup were swapped for TSI, then the body shell switched to the Vento and now young racers start their career with the Ameo Cup. And in the middle of it, when a bunch of enthusiasts wanted to go rallying, the factory went out of their way to support the privately-entered project with parts, tech support, and even a payable-when-able credit system.

That team, Slideways Industries, was what led to the magazine you’re holding in your hands. No, really. While my fellow founding editors and I were running the rally team we realized there wasn’t a magazine with an enthusiast-enough bent to its editorial ethos, and that is what led us to bring the world’s number 1 enthusiast motoring magazine to India. True story. In a not-so-round-about-way, the Polo is what led to evo India! At our peak, we had seven cars in the team (and on the long term fleet of this magazine!), a foreign driver, team championship in the bag and the country’s first Arrive and Drive program, that is still active today.

Naturally then, for the tenth year of the Polo in India, a celebration was due. But what could we do that hasn’t already been done?

SANDAKPHU IS IN THE HIMALAYAS, EXCEPT not in the Himalayas we keep running to for every driving adventure. This is the highest peak in West Bengal, just north of Darjeeling, and on a clear day, you can see four of the five highest peaks in the world — Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu. In consequence, it is immensely popular with trekkers who say the views are panoramic, stretching from west to east taking in the peaks of Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, and even Arunachal. As spectacular as Ladakh, the eastern Himalayas swap out the barren nothingness for evergreen pine forests that blanket equally mighty mountains, and for added pizzazz, pepper it with bright red rhododendrons and white magnolias. April is when the flowers are in full bloom, the views bright and clear, and you might even spot the Red Panda. It’s the perfect time to attempt something silly. Except, everything is blanketed in thick fog.

Nobody is saying I told you so but it is writ large across their faces. My colleagues spent the best part of a month convincing me of the impossibility of taking a car on a 4x4 track and when I proved that humans can be even more stubborn than donkeys, they spent the last four days driving the Polo GT TDI together with our long term test Tiguan up from Pune. I have no idea of the terrain or the challenge, I’ve never been to Sandakphu, I only know the drive makes for extraordinarily spectacular photographs.

This is the so-called Land of Land Rover. Literally ever since Land Rover made the first Land Rover these 4x4s have been the only thing capable of playing this narrow rock trail to ferry locals, forest officials, planters and their produce, and trekkers who couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way up. It’s something about the terrain that just suits the Landie — very steep so you need low ratio to climb up and then back crawl down at slower than walking pace so as not to understeer off the edge of the mountain; a narrow track for the narrow trail; perfect visibility to drive right on the edge; massive ground clearance to clear the boulders; a tight turning circle for the hairpins; and in the absence of a seat belt, a war surplus parachute should something go wrong.

That’s the challenge. No, not using a parachute, but driving the Polo on the Sandakphu trail. The idea is to see how far the Polo can go on the 4x4 trail. The idea is not to diss any 4x4, I must clarify. It’s to put a car to its ultimate test — a test of strength, power, durability, safety, and the chops of the driver behind the ’wheel — and discover just what a car we’ve praised for so long can do.

BAGDOGRA IS THE CLOSEST AIRPORT AND from there it is a two-and-a-bit hour drive as you rapidly escape the heat and climb the hills. We’ve set up base at Mirik, a typically messy and congested hill-side village which is reputed to have the most liveable hotel this side of the chaos of Darjeeling or the plantation homestays. While the rest of the country is sweltering in 40 plus degree heat, Mirik, in the afternoon, demands a light sweater and the next morning we pull out our puffy jackets and hoodies. It’s six, the temperature is 8 degrees, the sun is already up and to escape the freezing rain I jump into the Polo.

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