And the road becomes my bride – Drive to Discover 5 in the Honda Mobilio MPV

And the road becomes my bride
I have stripped of all but pride
So in her I do confide
And she keeps me satisfied

Metallica in my ears, a sunny Coimbatore greeted me on a Friday afternoon. So, why did I find myself in Tamil Nadu’s second largest city, right at the start of India’s scorching summer? Well, Honda’s Drive to Discover Edition 5 beckoned. Coimbatore is reasonably well connected to the rest of the country by air, and even hosts a couple of international flights from the Middle East and South East Asia.

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Why, Drive to Discover?

India’s road infrastructure is rapidly developing and car owners now have very reliable machines. both two and four wheeled, to explore this vast country of ours. Honda has been a pioneer of sorts in encouraging the average car owner in the country to go out, Drive and Discover, which brings us to the fifth edition of this exploratory journey that the Japanese automaker has been conducting for motoring scribes like me. It’s the automaker’s hope that travelogues about their cars will inspire owners to hit the wanderlust button, and go out there and make memories that last a lifetime.

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Traveling on Fridays is usually godsend, and we motoring scribes can’t really complain about weekends going for a toss; Not when we get paid to do what we love doing most -hitting the open road. The Vivanta by Taj—Surya, was where we were put up for the night. Situated bang in the heart of the city, off the Race Course, this five star property is a nine storied structure whose service is impeccable, a trait that I’ve come to consistently experience in every Taj property thus far.

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Talking grub, the local Badaga cuisine is a highlight at this hotel, and do sample a dish or two. Always at an arm’s length from everything religious, most of Coimbatore was off access for me, for scores and scores of temples dominated the cityscape. Of course, those of you spiritually inclined do have the option of driving to the Velliangiri foothills, where a mystic called Jaggi Vasudev runs a Yoga center and the Isha foundation. He’s a very logical man. Do look him up if you can. It’s an experience really, hearing what he has to say.

Staying mostly cooped up at the Vivanta’s plush confines and calling it an early night was how the rest of the day transpired for me. Honda takes its leisure driving seriously and Drive to Discover events have a typically relaxed itinerary, where you get to take your time, breathe easy and slow the clock down a bit. Suits me just right. The sun was up and shining, on a balmy Saturday morning, which also happened to be a day where the city partially shut down with a strike. About the perfect time to take the twisty road up the Nilgiri range to the Queen of the Hills, Ooty? You bet.

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The fleet of five gleaming Honda Mobilio MPVs set out for Ooty after flag off. Getting out of the city proved to be a breeze with Google maps working flawlessly, and smiling locals ever willing to put us on the right path. Now, Coimbatore to Ooty can be done by two major routes. Head to Coonoor, onto Wellington and up to Ooty. Since Coonoor makes up foothills of the Niligiris, plenty of traffic moves up and down this road. Intrepid road warriors that we are, we took the road less taken, and pointed the Mobilio’s nose towards Kotagiri, entering Ooty via Doddabetta, the highest mountain of the Niligiri range.

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Now, the Mobilio is an MPV that Honda launched in 2014. A seven seater that is akin to a stationwagon version of the Honda Amaze, this MPV is car-like in terms of handling. This really helps in city traffic where the MPV masks its size very well. After a minute or two behind the wheel, you won’t even notice that the Mobilio is a long vehicle that extends quite a bit behind the driver seat. Brownie point? Oh yes. The Mobilio handles well, and body roll even while attacking corners around hill roads can be hardly felt, for the driver and front passenger that is. Folks at the mid and third row of seats will be at the mercy of the body roll though. Note to self – Take it easy when you have people at the rear.

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The petrol motor of the Mobilio is a 1.5 liter unit, the same one that also powers the City sedan. A smooth operator that revs up eagerly, this motor is quite tractable in the city, even with five adults aboards. On the highway, keeping the revs up brings the best of this motor to the fore, with the 145 Nm of torque making three digit speeds come rather quickly by MPV standards. However, quick overtaking maneuvers calls for keeping this motor in the meat of the torque band, which in turn requires changing cogs. That the gearshift is slick makes this activity enjoyable.

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The view from up Doddabetta can be beautiful when the mist clears but hunger pangs ruled the roost for many. The prospect of tackling some very poor tarmac up the mountain seemed distinctly unappealing to most. So, skip Doddabetta we did, and headed straight into Ooty. The first pit stop of the day was at Hotel Nahar Residency, a landmark of sorts in this hill town. Meat eaters excuse, for this hotel serves up only vegetarian fare. They have a nice little Bistro cafe that opens up in the evenings, where wood fired Pizzas are served. If you like your meat, spicy and all, a smaller joint called Blue Mountain situated next to Nahar’s, will satiate your cravings.

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Ooty came and went in a flash, and driving through evergreen pine forests with that typical hilly smell in the air was magical. With a relatively light lunch in our tummies anticipating the legendary 36 hairpins, all five Mobilio crews took it easy, with the windows down and the breeze flitting in and out. Our destination for the night was the Serai lodge at Bandipur. Getting down from Ooty to the twin wildlife reserves of Mudumalai in Tamilnadu and Bandipur in Karnataka has two ways – one through Masinagudi that will take you through the 36 hairpins, and the other through Gudalur, which is longer but better suited to those with motion sickness.

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The route through the 36 hairpins is traffic free but one must note that this ghat road is closed to traffic after 8:30 PM. Also, you can’t get beyond Masinagudi, into the Mudumalai reserve after 6 PM as the nocturnal wildlife own the roads. Mudumalai is Tamilnadu’s part of the wildlife reserve that plays hosts to large carnivores and herbivores such as the Royal Bengal Tigers, Leopards, Elephants and Bisons. Mudumalai is a liquor free zone. So, be prepared to have your stock confiscated at the forest check post.

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Bandipur, doesn’t have any such restrictions though. When the animals can have their watering holes, why can’t humans, is perhaps the reason for the small concession that forest authorities make in Bandipur. So, it’s anybody’s guess as to where most of the tourists head. What both these reserves have though is a speed limit that unfortunately isn’t enforced. Ginger progress is recommended, for the road cuts right through the jungle, with animal crossings galore. While one of the Mobilio Diesel’s had two tyres go flat bang in the middle of the road cutting through the Bandipur national park, spare tyres came in handy.

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Driving from Mudumalai, as you reach the forest officer quarters of the Bandipur national park, a right turn through decent tarmac for about 6 kilometers, and then a left turn to an unpaved road for another 3 kilometers will bring you to ‘The Serai’, a luxurious property that’s very close to the core area of the tiger reserve. Owned and run by the group behind the Cafe Coffee Day franchise, the Serai has a quietude amid all that luxury. Nightfall comes rather quickly and the sounds of the jungle take over.

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You then realize where you really are, in prime Tiger territory. One of our fellow scribes even swore that he heard something brush against his room’s door. Why, most of the village folk and resort staff I made small talk claimed to have spotted tigers and leopards at some point of their lives. Would we get to spot one? The dawn beckoned. But before that, a hearty outdoor dinner followed, where conversations and camaraderie flowed. An early start to the day, when the air is crisp and when the sun makes the sky dance in a million hues, most of us piled into a Tata 207 pick up truck, and headed to the forest office, where our rides into the jungle’s core area awaited. Mitsubishi Canters, noisy and diesel powered, is what Bandipur offers larger tourist contingents while Maruti Gypsys too can be hired.

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The Canter cantered into the jungle, just as most of the nocturnal wildlife was retiring for the day. The first watering hole gave us a few mongooses while spotted deer were aplenty. A peacock or two strutted its stuff before flying away while a giant Malabar Squirrel proved too quick to catch with my humble camera lens. A larger watering hole was graced with ducks and various other waterfowl, the name of which I’m not sure of. A false positive or two sprung up, with ears cocked and backs stiff, I’m talking about the deers here, only to yield nothing. A sentinel on the tree, the langur, called from somewhere within the thick foliage, and then nothing. The drivers of the Canters, who also doubled up as spotters did their best to track tigers, but in summer, wildlife usually retreats deeper into the jungle. While exchanging notes, some forest guards even reported that the greener and wetter Nagarahole, a nearby tiger reserve, would be a better bet for tiger spotting during summers. On that note, our Bandipur national park tiger safari ended. While the king of the jungle proved to be elusive, the rich wildlife somewhat made up for it.

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Pack up time at the Serai followed, with Coorg beckoning. As always, the five Honda Mobilio MPVs decided to stake it out through pristine shrub jungles than the rather straightforward route to Madikeri. Leaving Bandipur at about 1130 AM, we made quick time to Gundlupet, and headed towards Kabini. Circling the Kabini dam and into dry deciduous jungle, the surroundings got greener as we headed into Nagarahole national park, another tiger reserve that abuts the Kabini reserve.

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For the drive from Bandipur to Coorg, yours truly jumped into a diesel variant of the Mobilio. The diesel motor is the 1.5 liter i-DTEC all aluminium mill that has plenty of torque right from idle. With a peak torque of 200 Nm delivered with little turbo lag, the Mobilio Diesel is a better highway cruiser than the MPV’s petrol variant. The five gears of the diesel engine are well spaced out and progress is swift as one quickly runs through the slick cogs of the manual transmission.

The Mobilio Diesel also feels better to throw around corners, what with the extra weight of the diesel motor under the hood allowing for better steering feel. Body roll for the mid and third row occupants remains an issue though. A distinct advantage of both the petrol and diesel Mobilios is the ground clearance they’re endowed with. We didn’t scrape a single speed breaker or a pothole despite some very rough roads into Nagarahole.

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The highlight of the drive in the Nagarahole tiger reserve was an Elephant that languorously chomped on its midday meal, utterly oblivious to the traffic and shutterbugs around. Do not stop and get close to an elephant though, as these massive mammals are known for their sudden changes in temper. After Nagarahole, the tarmac improved considerably, and the district of Coorg came up.

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With the sun setting and an overcast sky, we sped by, coffee plantations, a staple cash crop in this part of the world. Splendid and twisty roads, with views to die for mark Coorg, which is also known as the Scotland of the East. Our destination for the night was the Taj Vivanta, Coorg. Getting there proved to be a challenge though. as the otherwise reliable Google maps took us through some very difficult roads. At some point of time, we realized that we were on the wrong path and had to turn back as the roads were fit only for jeeps, the likes of which abound this region. After conferring with the hotel staff, we were back on track to reach this beautiful property at about 8ish in the evening. A dinner that served the choicest local delicacy, Pandi Curry (pork curry), beckoned. The melt-in-your-mouth Pork Chilly is to die for and this five star property even grows its own spices.

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Only the morning revealed the utterly stunning locale where we were put up. From a temperature controlled infinity pool that made you reach out to mountains to undulating vistas all around, the Taj Vivanta Coorg delivers the very best the hill country has to offer in terms of tantalizing views.

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The day was spend lazing around and the evening got a Mobilio load of motoring scribes heading to meet a veteran in this profession, Roshun Povaiah. Roshun, who also happens to be the Deputy Managing Editor of CarToq has a lovely coffee estate in Coorg. After getting a tour of the property, we returned to the Taj Vivanta, for what would be the last night of Drive to Discover 5.

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A raucous round of food and laughter followed. The following morning saw us pack our bags and point the Mobilio towards Bangalore. Like most highways in Coorg, the road through Bylakuppe towards the Mysore bypass was well surfaced, with some great views thrown in. After a quick detour to Harangi dam,  we headed to the Namdroling Monastery at Bylakuppe. Now, Bylakuppe is a refugee town, made up almost entirely of Tibetan refugees. The monastery is known for its tranquil surroundings and holds major religious and political significance to those in exile from Tibet. For food hunters, the Beef Chilly at Potula Kitchen is a must have. Ask anyone around for this place, and you’ll be directed this quaint yet well run joint that serves many Tibetan dishes.

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After a hearty breakfast, progress was swift up to the Mysore (Mysuru now) bypass, which put us on the road to Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka and the city from where we’d take flights to our respective destinations. Various interesting towns dot the Bangalore-Mysore highway, which has plenty of speed breakers to keep progress sufficiently slow. Mandya – famous for sugar cane, Channapatna – famous for its wooden toys, and Ramanagara – famous for its silk came and went in quick succession, and we soon found ourselves on the outskirts of Bangalore, a bulging megapolis. Taking the NICE (Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise) road into the city meant that we could bypass most traffic and get into Yashwantpur, the northern part of the city which leads to the new airport road. A couple of hours later, most of the motoring scribes were on their flights to their respective destinations, after four great days of driving to discover India, in the Honda Mobilio.

Hat tip to Honda Car India’s Vivek and Gaurav, for their outstanding hospitality. And to Bhanu, who ensured that the cars were in ship shape, and stayed that way.