Call of the Wild

Saneet Dsilva
Discovering an unexplored side of Rajasthan in the Volkswagen Tiguan

We’ve all heard the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Of course, it was never meant to only refer to actual books, but literally anything. That said, I feel it also holds true for Rajasthan. Doesn’t mention of the state bring to mind royal palaces, a local singing Padhaaro Mhaare Des, sand dunes and the sweltering hot summers? Petrolheads like us will also wax eloquent about the state’s arrow straight highways and smooth tarmac. But there also exists a different side to Rajasthan. One that not many know about, where human beings co-exist with one of the formidable creatures on the planet – the leopard.

This piece of oasis I am referring to is a tiny village called Bera, near the Jawai dam. A few weeks back when I was invited to the Tiguan Experience Day, I got a chance to drive the full-sized premium SUV on what was a purpose-built off-roading course. And that had me thinking – how would the Tiguan fare in a real world ‘off-road course’ where I’m also trying to spot ‘Mr Spots’. Then there’s the fact that compared to other big cats like the tiger, lion, Jaguar and also the cheetah, the leopard has a smaller and more athletic build which endows it with greater agility. Just like the Tiguan!

Of course, it’s hard to deny the fact that with its sharp design, elegant interiors and overall polished impression, the Tiguan will convince you that it is a set of wheels for the urban-dwelling corporate executive who usually gets chauffeured around for meetings. In fact, that’s also how comfortable its rear bench is. But let that not take away from the fact that the Tiguan is an immensely capable SUV thanks to its solid engineering. It is ideal for the kind of adventure I was heading out for – a leopard safari, which also involves a heavy dose of off-roading on the rocky hill formations made from lava that erupted from volcanoes ages ago!

The Tiguan also looks smashing – it is equipped with a set of sleek-looking headlamps incorporating the brand’s IQ.Light, which are full LEDs and get an adaptive function. The sharp lines also make for an unmistakable stance from the sides, along with the neat-looking 18-inch alloy wheels that get one of the coolest features around – self-levelling hub caps, something previously seen only on uber-expensive cars like Rolls Royces. Likewise, the interiors will have you assume you’re in an SUV wearing a luxury badge on its hood. Neat, understated and highly functional, like a full-sized German SUV should feel from inside, with its soft-touch plastics, large screens and the abundance of leather all round, not to forget, a large panoramic sunroof and top drawer fit-finish levels.

Jawai sits a 1,000km away from our base in Pune, a distance the Tiguan simply gobbled down. Its mile-munching abilities bear testimony to the Tiguan’s status as Volkswagen’s global best-seller. The 2.0-litre TSI engine offers 190PS and 320Nm, making it effortless to drive, also courtesy of Volkswagen’s tried and tested 7-speed DSG that sends power to all four wheels using the German marque’s renowned 4MOTION all-wheel drive system. I have to also mention here, the Tiguan’s paddle shifters are the piece-de-resistance for me, especially on long highway drives. They simply inject a sense of enthusiasm that has you try to use them at every possible opportunity with their alacrity.

All this, while you’re safely cocooned inside and revelling in the comfort of the plush seats, enjoying the impeccable ride quality that will have you feeling fresh even after several hours behind the wheel. On the same note, the Tiguan is a Volkswagen and that translates to sporty dynamics that believe you sitting in an SUV that has a ground clearance of 200mm and not a sedan! So while straightline stability is as good as it gets, the Tiguan will also have you break into a smile around corners with its planted feel and steering responses, something I was enjoying around the bends as I closed in on the Gujarat-Rajasthan state border. My smile didn’t fade away even when I hit the pothole-ridden country roads in Rajasthan as the Tiguan simply soaked it all up.

I soon found myself hitting up Jawai, where some of the narrowest lanes I’ve driven through welcomed me. The Tiguan’s 8-way electrically adjustable driver’s seat ensured I was able to sit up and get the best possible visibility of the road ahead. It almost felt like the Tiguan had wrapped itself around me and shrunken in size. The Tiguan and I found ourselves running out of tarmac soon and it was then time to try out the off-road mode on the section leading up to the vantage point, which included a mix of mud and rocks both. Now, the locals use dedicated 4×4 vehicles for safaris, but given my experiences with the Tiguan, I was confident the SUV will soldier ahead. Of course, it’s off-road abilities are what help the Tiguan stand out and this full-sized premium SUV is a classic example of how looks can be deceptive!

Its excellent approach and departure angles afforded tonnes of confidence as did the 200mm of ground clearance. The bigger star of the Tiguan’s show though are its 4MOTION all-wheel drive system which was doing a brilliant job of transferring and managing the amount of torque being sent to all four wheels, and the little rotary dial on the centre console that was allowing me to choose from the terrain modes which include Snow, Tarmac, Off-Road and Off-Road Expert. The latter lets you customise settings, thereby allowing you to tailor powertrain responses to suit your driving conditions. Effectively, the Tiguan feels so capable off-road, it negates the need for a 4×4 system and a transfer case.

Here’s an interesting fact I learned from the locals: the leopards live in natural caves and rock shelters in the hills surrounding the village of Bera, which were formed millions of years ago due to volcanic eruptions. Bera is home to inhabitants of the Rabari tribe and surprisingly, there have been no human-animal conflicts and the harmony is an unspoken rule of sorts where human beings do not try to interfere with the animal’s whereabouts.

The Indian Leopard can adapt itself to varying environments. For example, the weather in Rajasthan gets rather hot during the day but temperatures cool down quite a bit at night. To draw the parallels, the Tiguan can easily adapt itself to urban conditions or get outdoorsy, depending on what you ask of it. Be it crawling through peak hour traffic, highway duties or treading off the beaten path, the SUV is always up for it all. I also have to say, leopards are among my favourites when it comes to big cats given how gracefully they go about their business – just like the Tiguan! And Jawai is one of the only places in the world where they co-exist peacefully with human beings, which is a wonder in itself!

As we proceeded further into the hills to spot the magnificent animal, Ed was ready with his camera and the massive lens we’d carried with us while I drove on. Suddenly, looking through his binoculars, our guide declared he’d spotted a couple of leopards nearby. I instantly found myself driving in stealth mode, thanks to the quietness of the 2.0-litre TSI engine, while Ed climbed up through the panoramic sunroof’s opening with his big lens!

We weren’t hoping to spot leopards as easily, but turns out, we were in the right place at the right time, thanks to the Tiguan’s swift manners. Watching the big cats was a treat for the eyes, given the way the leopards were walking and we also spotted their cubs who seemed quite playful! But it isn’t just the leopards that we were looking forward to. Our guide had also mentioned about a ‘hill climb’ that’s considered a true challenge for any SUV and I just knew I had to take the Tiguan there!

As we drove to the base of the said hill, I switched to Off-Road Expert mode, checked the settings, looked up at the steep incline, let out a cold breath and decided to give it a go. The incline was steep enough to frighten me but the strong, consistent surge of torque from the 2.0-litre TSI engine at low revs egged me to go on. The Tiguan maintained traction even though the incline was getting steeper by the inch and soldiered on without a hitch! Can’t deny I also felt very safe – the Tiguan is a Volkswagen which is a huge assurance on the safety front in itself. It feels solidly built and also gets six airbags along with a slew of safety features that help with peace of mind while making the Tiguan feel like a world-class premium SUV!

As they say, the view from the top is always to be savoured and when I got to the top and got out to look around, I simply couldn’t stop smiling. The sense of accomplishment was immense for me, while our guide was left gaping, as moments ago he wasn’t really sure the Tiguan would make it to the top! The view of the hills, greenery and water leading up to the Jawai dam was a sight to behold, especially with the sun just about to go down beyond it all, painting everything in front of me in a highly captivating shade of orange. It isn’t every day that you get to savour such moments and the Tiguan has helped it all feel surprisingly easy. Like I said at the start, it’s an SUV that refuses to be judged!

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