Can a new city car that costs £4000 survive a winter drive from India, where it is built, to France, where it was designed? We joined the team finding out
As another lorry overtakes our car approaching a blind corner on a sleet-covered single carriageway, it strikes me that this is the most ridiculous car journey I’ve ever known anyone to undertake.
“Sometimes it’s like we’re still in Mumbai,” says the driver with a wry smile. It feels like we’re hurtling along at some lick. The car is shaking a lot, it’s incredibly loud and the single wiper is manically working in vain to clear the windscreen of sleet. But a glance at the digital speedo shows we’re barely touching the road’s speed limit of 55mph.
The driver is Rahul Kakar, Autocar India‘s chief road tester, and the car in which we’re limply chopping through Arctic-like Estonian roads is one of the cheapest new cars you can buy anywhere. So far, it has covered 9500 miles of an 11,000-mile journey halfway around the world.
Designed by the French and built in India, the Renault Kwid has a starting price of just £3000 and this particular car is being driven from India Gate in Delhi to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the spiritual home city of its maker, by Autocar India to put it through the toughest possible test of endurance possible.
If you think that sounds ridiculous, you’re right. Crossing two continents in the depths of winter in a car that costs the same as a set of 20in wheels on a Ferrari 488 Spider is like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in flip-flops. And when an invitation arrived to join Autocar India for the final leg of the journey from Tallinn to Paris, I couldn’t wait to join them. But last night in Tallinn, when I met my new travel companions, who were weary and quiet after a month on the road and had been victims of a four-hour hold-up for questioning at the Russian border, the enormity of the task dawned. This won’t be a sightseeing trip around Europe.
Having had a 6am breakfast, we’re now on a single carriageway taking us to Lithuania for an overnight stop, but our sat-nav says we have another nine hours on the road.
Various members of the Autocar India team have helped along the way, but it has been a very small-scale operation given the size of the task, and just four of the team are with me now. Videographer Mritunjay Chakraborty has been chronicling the trip for the Autocar India TV show since the start in Delhi five weeks ago. He was a vegetarian before the trip started, but 10 days of relentless work through China fuelled only by egg fried rice has turned him into a carnivore. Photographer Ashley Baxter joined the team in Kazakhstan around a month in, taking over from Kuldeep Chaudhari, and 22-year-old Jay Patil has driven the support car – a Renault Duster (Dacia doesn’t exist in India) – almost the entire way. Before this trip, he’d never been outside of India.
“The most difficult thing has been getting used to other people being good drivers,” says Jay, unflinching in the face of Estonian truckers. “People are polite and everyone signals. It’s very different.”
Rahul has led the convoy in the Kwid from day one. He’s no stranger to ambitious road trips. Just last year, he drove from India to Germany in an Audi Q7, but this is a much sterner test, mechanically and physically.
“The sense of achievement is incomparable,” Rahul says, who has grown a deep Stockholm syndromestyle affection for the Kwid. “I love this little car, but it’s way more of a challenge than doing this in an SUV.”
He’s not wrong. As the morning wears on, even as a passenger, I’m a little drained, more than a little uncomfortable, and bitterly cold. The heater (designed for Indian ‘winters’) just about works, but the temperature outside is teetering above freezing and our breaks for photography throw us at Mother Nature’s mercy all too frequently. But the team have suffered much worse than this.
“We prepared for temperatures of minus 5deg C at the lowest, but Aralsk in Kazakhstan got to minus 23deg C,” Rahul says, pointing out that they started in a humid, sweltering 30deg C in Delhi. “None of us has ever felt cold like that before. Ashley struggled to press the shutter on his camera.”
The road we’re on is a single carriageway with a 55mph limit the whole way, so although we’re only 350 miles from Lithuania, it will take all day to reach Kaunas, our destination. Despite the gruelling conditions, Rahul is chatty as we cycle through his eclectic collection of music on USB sticks.
After a brief lunch stop in Latvia, I drive the Duster support vehicle to give Jay a break. “It’s amazing, but extremely tiring, to see the world like this,” he says. Has he ever felt like throwing in the towel? “Never,” he says. “It’s been the most incredible trip. But I have 1200 songs on my phone and I’m bored of every single one of them.”
I keep the Kwid within sight all the way to Lithuania and we park up at our hotel. The team is so battered and bruised from their time on the road that no one can resist the temptation of room service and an early night.
Another 6am start follows. We shovel down three platefuls of breakfast and, as per the morning routine, I set up the sat-navs for both cars, help take down some figures (mileage, temperature, time, date) and share a few laughs with the others to keep spirits up. Then it’s out to the old town in Kaunas. We make frequent photography stops during the day, but the main opportunity is first thing in the morning in a scenic part of whichever town we end up in.
“You can take us into Poland,” Rahul says, handing me the keys …read more