Travelogue #12 - Dubai to Jebel Hafeet

It might sound clichéd, but from the moment your AirBus or Boeing descends over the city's skyline till the time you take off on your return flight, the phrase "This happens only in Dubai" resonates oh so often in your minds. Be it the sheer magnificence of Burj Khalifa or the pleasant charm of the Palm Islands, the glitz and grandeur of the swanky malls dotting the city or the clockwork precision of autonomous trains in Dubai Metro, this bustling megapolis is sure to have you smitten.

For all its glory, Dubai has a downer, a rather big one at that. The notorious rush-hour traffic that often brings the city and its suburbs to a standstill can get on your nerves, literally. It did, for us, on a recent visit. Frustrated, we were looking at just two options for the next day - either curl up in our beds and laze around or head out for a long drive that ends in a stretch of tarmac considered to be amongst the world’s best driver’s roads. Obviously, we chose the latter.

So, Jebel Hafeet it was, a decision predominantly driven by the lure of the awesome 11-km final stretch that makes car enthusiasts go crazy. Jebel Hafeet is a popular mountain in the United Arab Emirates, bordering the neighboring country of Oman. At the foothills of this mountain is Al Ain, fourth largest city in the UAE that has a handful of places to keep tourists engaged. With the destination decided, a first-gen Ford Escape with more than 80,000 kilometers on the odo was all we had at our disposal. Quite old no doubt, but it’s a Ford after all! And so, we were good to go.

Next morning, we got moving at 07:00 AM sharp, knowing that’s the only way to evade traffic. The awesome roads in Dubai might tempt us to get excited, but remember the fact that they are constantly monitored and patrolled. Though we had an UAE resident showing us the way, clear directions and exit signs everywhere means that visitors are unlikely to get lost. Wherever one stays in Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (E 11) and Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Road (formerly Emirates Road, E 311) aren't inaccessible. From either of them, follow the exit marked E 66 to end up in Dubai - Al Ain Road.

Wide, smooth and arrow straight for the most part, piercing through vast stretches of sand on either sides and sprinkled with well-behaved traffic that throws no surprises, highways in the UAE can be really boring to drive on. The E 66 was no different. It’s hard to believe that this very road was notorious for accidents and casualties a few years back. Minimum speed limit in the E 66 is 60 km/h while the maximum is 120 km/h for cars. Radar guns are installed at regular intervals to pick up over-speeding vehicles but impatient souls have smarted the technique of zooming well over the limit between the installations and shedding speed just in time to evade the gun. Watch out for them! Entry to Al Ain city is clearly marked and can’t be missed. Coming from the hustle and bustle of Dubai, what struck us immediately was Al Ain’s calm and laidback nature. Roads were reasonably wide, traffic was sparse and, true to its “Garden City” tag, Al Ain had greenery all around.

Since our target was to be at the top of Jebel Hafeet in time for sunset, we had quite a few hours to spare. Our first stop was Al Ain Zoo. Though nothing new, this zoo has a big cat house and an interesting bird cage that’s worth a visit. When it was time for lunch, we headed to “Green Mubazzarah”, a popular picnic spot right at the foot of Jebel Hafeet. Natural hot water springs originate here and form big deep puddles all over the place. Sensing an opportunity, the authorities have developed the place into a full-fledged tourist attraction, complete with lush greenery over the mountain slopes, barbecue grills with shelters and ample car parking spaces. There is a historic dam right next to Green Mubazzarah for those interested in ages gone by. With most of the afternoon spent, it was time to kick off the most-awaited leg of the drive at 04:00 PM.

Measuring 11.7 km from the plains to the top, the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road is a brilliant piece of engineering and a marvelous road to drive on. With two lanes for uphill traffic and one for downhill traffic, this smooth and curvy road can mount a challenge to the best of race tracks in terms of asphalt quality and for the sheer thrill it offers. View points en route offer spectacular views of the road itself and the vast plains surrounding the mountain. Given a chance, we would love to spend an entire day driving the wheels off a sports car up and down the Jebel Hafeet mountain. It’s that good! The statements that we just made might have failed to excite you, but we are sure these pics won’t.

They did set your pulses racing, didn’t they?

We reached the top in no time only to find that the road just abruptly ends in a big parking lot that offers a panoramic view of the plains. Sunset from this place, with cool breeze gushing over you from all sides, is indeed good to experience. There is nothing else to do at the top apart from grabbing a bite in the strictly-average-quality restaurant adjacent to the parking lot. Right opposite to this, a few meters down the road, there is a luxury hotel and a palace belonging to one of the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi. It might seem the most unlikeliest of locations but we can’t stop drooling over the prospect of driving up and down this road to reach the hotel or the palace.

Amidst swears that we are coming back to Jebel Hafeet in a road-hugging, rear-wheel-drive sports car, we started our drive back to Dubai in our trusty old Escape. View of the Al Ain city from one of the view points in Jebel Hafeet mountain and view of the mountain road itself from the plains below with the lights lit up are worth a stop each on the way back. 


This small SUV from Ford might look like a total misfit to a destination like this but, believe us, the Escape's minimal body roll and predictable handling did let us enjoy those awesome curves that the Jebel Hafeet mountain road had on offer. There was no problem accommodating five of us, all full-sized adults, and the knick-knacks that we carried. What was apparent though was the lack of relative grunt all through the rev range. The Escape was no match to the EcoBoosts, V6s and V8s scorching the roads. Wear and tear resulting from close to a decade of vintage and more than 85K kilometers on the odo also made their presence felt. Some interior plastics had turned pale while the muffler was about to give up soon. Other than that, the Escape did live up to its name and let us escape the mad rush of Dubai, even if it was just for a day.  


* Destination: Jebel Hafeet
* Route driven: Dubai - Al Ain - Jebel Hafeet - Dubai
* Total distance covered: 359 km
* Toll & Parking Charges: 0 Dirhams
* Number of days:

* Vehicle Make & Model: Ford Escape 
* Odometer Start: 86576 km
* Odometer End: 86935 km
* Average trip fuel efficiency: 8.2 km/l

* Best time to visit: December
* What not to forget: Plan to be at the top for sunset
* Fun Tip: A fun-to-drive car should be on top of your list of requisites for this drive. The asphalt and those curves are so addictive!  
* Health Tip: Do not forget your sunscreen if you are planning to do this in the infamous Middle East summer.


Tata Zest launched in India with a killer price tag

Over the last few years, Tata Motors has been going through an extremely lean phase suffering from dismal sales, a series of flopped models and negative customer sentiment following the Nano fiasco. Signaling its intent to bounce back from all that in one shot, Tata launched its highly-anticipated Zest compact sedan in India today. With a killer price tag of INR 4.64 to 5.99 Lakhs for the petrol and INR 5.64 to 6.99 Lakhs for the diesel variants, the Zest could shake up the segment dominated by a trio of competent cars from Maruti-Suzuki (Dzire), Hyundai (Xcent) and Honda (Amaze), the three largest car-makers in the country today. 

After impressing the show-goers at the 2014 Auto Expo in New Delhi earlier this year, the Zest and it’s hatchback counterpart Bolt are the first significantly-new models from Tata in some years. The Zest is also the first model born out of Tata’s “HorizoNext” initiative that was launched in 2013 with much fanfare to improve its ailing passenger vehicle business unit.

Designers at Tata have made the Zest look modern and stylish while still retaining the Tata family elements that we have grown familiar with. A bolder version of the 'smiling' grille with hexagonal mesh pattern makes its debut in the Zest flanked on either sides by stretched headlights with inbuilt projectors. The thin chrome strips in the grille and the unique foglamp housing with Daytime Running Lights are the other attractions up front. The profile exhibits a strong resemblance to the Vista and Manza and the boot looks better integrated than some of its competitors. While the almond-shaped wraparound taillights, the thick chrome strip and the two-tone rear bumper try their best to spruce up, the Zest's rear end, like all other compact sedans looks shrunken, bulbous and disproportionate.

Not believing what we saw virtually, we checked out the interiors of the Zest first hand and came back pleasantly surprised. The design, layout, fit and finish is unlike anything that we have seen in a Tata before. In fact, the overall quality levels are up there with the best that this segment has on offer. The list of features on offer is even more impressive. For about INR 7 Lakhs ex-showroom Delhi, the top-end Zest's standard kit includes dual front airbags, Antilock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brakeforce Distribtion (EBD), Corner Stability Control, climate control, Harman-developed touchscreen infotainment system with USB, Aux and bluetooth connectivity, smart voice recognition and reverse parking sensors. Beat that, Hyundai!

The improvements continue under the hood too. Tata's much-hyped 'Revotron' petrol engine makes its debut in the Zest. Helped by a turbocharger, this 1.2-liter engine churns out 90 ps of power at 5000 rpm and 140 Nm of torque between 1750 to 3000 rpm. Tata has even incorporated three driving modes with suitable changes in engine mapping for the driver to choose from - Eco, City and Sport. The same 1.3-liter Quadrajet diesel engine is carried over from the Vista and Manza but Tata has now launched the segment-first AMT (Automated Manual Transmission) in the diesel variant. Apart from the base diesel variant that belts out 75 ps, all other diesel variants get 90 ps of maximum power.

With modern styling, impressive interiors that would make cars two segments higher run for cover, the segment-first diesel AMT and a mouthwatering price tag, we have no doubts that the Zest is all set to make it big and revive Tata's fortunes in passenger vehicles. Hurry up folks, Zest up your life before Tata jacks up these introductory prices. We can't wait for the Bolt and Nexon now!


All-new Hyundai i20 makes its global premiere in India

Busting the myth that expensive hatchbacks just don’t sell in India, the original i20 that was launched in 2008 went on to become a big-seller for Hyundai. With a price tag that was alarmingly close to some midsize sedans for the top variant, the i20 was a revelation, one that we perceive as a sign of the Indian market coming-of-age. We are least surprised then that Hyundai chose India for the global premiere and launch of the second-generation i20. Launched in New Delhi today, the all-new i20 is given the 'Elite' prefix (akin to 'Grand' in the new i10).

Adopting the Korean brand’s Version 2.0 of the popular ‘Fluidic Sculpture’ design philosophy, the new i20, designed by Hyundai’s R&D Center in Germany, looks mature and modern. Viewed up front, the signature hexagonal air dam and stretched headlights are unmistakably Hyundai. The profile, which is now more sedate, sees significant changes. Gone are the series of creases and curves that adorned the previous-generation model, replaced by taut, cleaner and muscular lines. The pronounced shoulder line, flared wheel arches and blackened C-Pillar stand out in profile while the rear is all about those terrific taillights that has built-in LED elements and extend well into the tailgate.

Cars from Hyundai has built an enviable reputation for smart packaging and excellent interior quality and the new i20 is no exception. The dual-tone dashboard that has a mix of black and beige looks rich and busy, hinting at the long list of features on offer. Amongst others, dual front airbags, Antilock Braking System (ABS), rear parking assist with steering adaptive display, steering-mounted bluetooth and audio controls, music system with 1GB internal storage, lane change indicator, service reminder, automatic headlights, climate control, rear air-conditioning vents, smart pedal, leather-wrapped steering wheel and a supervision instrument cluster are part of the kit. Though the new i20 in Asta trim has all the features that an hatchback would ever need, the absence of 6 airbags, rain-sensing automatic wipers, sun roof and navigation system, all of which were on offer in the old i20 at some point, is surprising.

The 1.2-liter Kappa engine with a power output of 83 ps at 6000 rpm and torque rating of 11.7 kgm at 4000 rpm and the 1.4-liter U2 CRDi diesel engine with 90 ps of maximum power at 4000 rpm and 22.4 kgm of peak torque between 1500 to 2750 rpm are carried over from the old i20. They are mated to a 5-speed manual and a 6-speed manual transmission respectively. Again, the 1.4-liter petrol variant with automatic transmission that was offered in the old i20 is conspicuous by its absence. A more powerful petrol engine would have put the long hood in the new i20 to good use, but it isn't to be.

The new i20 is available in a total of ten variants, five each in petrol and diesel. Prices for the petrol variants range from INR 4.90 Lakhs to 6.47 Lakhs while the diesel variants are priced between INR 6.10 Lakhs and 7.67 Lakhs. All prices are ex-showroom New Delhi. With just marginal increase in prices vis-à-vis the old model, the new i20 offers a host of improvements on almost all fronts. While that makes the new i20 appear to an easy sell, the strong pricing overlap with the Grand i10 and Xcent might be a dampener. 

Competing with cars like Maruti-Suzuki Swift, Volkswagen Polo, Nissan Micra, Fiat Punto Evo and the upcoming Tata Bolt and Honda Jazz, the i20 is all set to make a splash in the premium hatchback segment. Are we looking at the next bockbuster from Hyundai then? Well, probably yes!


Audi launches the A3 compact luxury sedan in India

Despite being the latest entrant of the fabled German trio, Audi stormed to the top of the luxury car segment in India, riding on the success of its Sport Utility Vehicles. The Q7, Q5 and Q3 are still hot-sellers in their segments and the A4 too seems to be doing well for itself, going by the increasing number of them spotted on roads. The rise to the top might have been a simple affair for Audi, but it knows that there is a tough fight on hand to stay there. If the A3 sedan, launched in New Delhi today at mouth-watering prices, is any indication, Audi is well prepared. 

Launched in four diesel and a sole petrol variant, A3 is the first compact luxury sedan in India. While the base diesel variant, dubbed Attraction, is priced at INR 22.95 Lakhs, the top-end Technology variant costs INR 32.66 Lakhs, a whooping 10 grand higher. There are two variants in between, Premium and Premium Plus retailing at INR 25.95 and 29.95 Lakhs respectively. The petrol variant, in Premium Plus trim, costs INR 28.95 Lakhs. All prices are ex-showroom Delhi. While local assembly at its Aurangabad plant might have helped Audi in pricing the A3 competitively, the killer entry tag shows that it is gunning for big volumes.

Audi has introduced a new badging nomenclature in the A3, with the diesel and petrol variants sporting 35 TDI and 40 TFSI badges. This new nomenclature helps us differentiate high-power variants from the low-power variants sporting the same engine, something that wasn't possible visually before. Volkswagen Group's famous 2.0-liter diesel engine with 143 bhp of maximum power and 320 Nm of peak torque does duty in the A3 too. The petrol variant has a 1.8-liter turbocharged engine under the hood with 180 bhp of maximum power and 250 Nm of peak torque. While the diesel engine is mated to a 6-speed dual-clutch S-Tronic transmission, the petrol variant uses a 7-speed unit.

Externally, the A3 is obviously inspired by all the other sedans in the lineup. Sporting sharp headlights with characteristic kinks, a chrome-garnished hexagonal grille, a strong shoulder line connecting the lights at the front with those at the rear and those stunning scooped-in taillights, the A3 looks extremely impressive. It might not have its own identity in the Audi lineup, but who cares? The interiors are a different ballgame though. The chunky, 4-spoke steering wheel is unmistakably Audi but the minimalist dashboard with circular air-conditioner vents, pop-up Multi Media Interface (MMI) screen and a thin array of buttons look elegant.

The mid and top variants of the car are reasonably loaded with dual-zone climate control, cruise control, electronic parking aid, electrically-adjustable front seats, leather upholstery, xenon headlamps with automatic range adjustment, fog lights and an optional panoramic sun roof among others. The base Attraction variant loses most of these equipment though. Seven airbags and a 7-inch MMI screen are standard across the range but the Touch control with handwriting recognition is exclusive to the flagship Technology variant.

The A3 looks good inside and out, features impressive kit, sports the much-aspired-for 'sedan' body style and, most importantly, boasts an "Audi" badge. Not for nothing then was the A3 crowned the 2014 'World Car of the Year'. Combine all these with killer pricing and the A3 is a definite blockbuster in the making. Do we see Mercedes-Benz scrambling across to bring in the CLA? Until that comes along, its going to be a cakewalk for Audi. What's your move, BMW?